Creative Submission: Joseph Forbes Shows That Personal Connection is in Our ‘DNA’

November 15, 2009

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Feeling that we didn’t have a good submission for this issue, we asked for creative submissions at the last minute — just a few days before release — and although a number of talented artists submitted, the poem DNA by Joseph Forbes (SMG ’10) in particular caught our eye. His poem contains a mix of accessible, universal metaphor and verse that is clearly deeply personal, and yet intriguing all the same. Studying abroad in New Zealand, we had a chance to ask Forbes a few questions via e-mail. He graciously shared some of the thoughts and emotions that went into this, his first submitted poem. The interview appears below. The poem appears in the second page.


Photo provided by Joseph Forbes

Photo provided by Joseph Forbes

The Quad: How did you get into writing poetry? Do you write in any other forms?

Joseph Forbes: In high school I was a journalist, so most of what I’d file in a portfolio is inherently more direct.  Obviously we don’t write a lot of poetry in SMG, so my mind just isn’t in that mode very often.  My private journal has a certain character to it that I would frame as poetic.  The entries are fairly sparse though, usually when I’m trying to sort something out about my life or direction.  My email exchanges with close friends and girlfriends over the years constitute a body of work I now rather cherish.  They suggest a certain ‘turbulence of youth,’ though I’d be the first to admit my life hasn’t been all that dramatic.  In the past I’ve written song lyrics, and some music as well — nothing that’s likely to get me a record contract, but it’s meaningful to me and I can melt into it again in the right moment.

How often do you write? Do you practice? Do you seek out criticism to make your work better?

I don’t write all that often, and once something is on paper I rarely edit or revise it.  Especially with poetry, it’s a moment in time I’ve tried to capture; making changes is like trying to change the past.  So in that respect, my writing serves more as a documentary of my experiences.  Most often I use writing as an outlet when I’m at some extreme of the emotional spectrum.  Maybe a bad breakup or an argument with a colleague.  I write when I feel disconnected from the world.  That said, there aren’t a lot of common themes in what I’ve written.  Nor is there one style that’s characteristically mine.  Sometimes I rhyme, other times there’s a hidden structure or pace or meter that’s needed to bring the meaning out — the ‘poetry’ isn’t in the words per se.  I do use a lot of metaphor, sometimes to the extent it would go right over the casual reader’s head.  Just about anything I’ve written that I would call “great” was penned in one to two hours, shared with a few close friends, then filed away for random rediscovery.

Have you ever submitted or been published before? If so, when and where?

Outside of high school journalism, I haven’t had any writing published.  I suppose I’ve never tried, even though some friends have suggested it.  I could easily create a blog or website to feature my work.  The difficulty, as I perceive it, is the lack of common threads in style, format, content, etc.  Likewise, a lot of what I’ve written was directed at someone close to me, someone whose actions or faults don’t deserve to be made public.  In many cases that person was me.  I feel like once it’s out there on the interwebs, cached in Google, you no longer own it.  Not in the sense of copyright; rather, once it’s published, you have no control over what a reader does with it.

I actually had a girlfriend submit one of my poems as her own work — in a graduate-level course!  Plagiarism aside, she couldn’t seem to grasp why it so offended me.  I considered it a major violation of trust.  Needless to say, that relationship didn’t last much longer.  What I thought was really ironic is she didn’t even “get” the deeper metaphor of the piece — she just thought the poem had a nice ring to it, but she completely overlooked the lesson embedded in it.

Do you feel like you have a future in writing either professionally or as a hobby?

I’m not sure I would risk the uncertainty of writing professionally.  The blogoshpere is unbelievably saturated, and to be perfectly honest I don’t think I’m as talented as a lot of writers out there.  I have fits and starts, go off on rants, produce some masterful work once in a blue moon.  There are a few writers and photographers I follow on communities like tumblr, and these people are like machines.  Something new and outstanding every day, even if it’s just a story about a crazy guy on the subway.  And as talented as they are, as naturally as writing comes to them, they’re not making a living off of it.

If I were to write purposefully, I would do something in the realm of social science.  Telling people’s stories and relating them back to fundamental lessons.  That’s why I dig Malcolm Gladwell’s work — it’s often a slice of life we can all appreciate.

Where do you usually get your inspiration for your writing? What kinds of things do you like to write about?

Emotion.  Just sheer emotion.  Usually more negative emotions, though I think poetry is a constructive way of dealing with them rather than letting them fester.  I have a handful of work that’s hopeful or celebratory, some that’s sexual, some that’s just Joe on his soapbox.  Virtually everything I write has some lesson, a grain of optimism, a light at the end of the tunnel.  That’s why I can always revisit it and still feel proud of it — it’s about overcoming the challenges our lives and emotions present us with.

Inspiration comes most often from music.  I have a soft spot for deep, meaningful lyrics.  And believe it or not, I derive a lot of inspiration from other people’s photography, especially portraits.  There’s poetry in the lines and shapes of people’s faces, something common we all understand at a fundamental level.

Has your writing changed being abroad? How has that affected your writing?

Part of my intent for studying in New Zealand was to ‘find myself.’  Not exactly an identity crisis — more a matter of “getting away from the noise” and figuring out what was important to me.  Sorting out my life’s priorities by removing myself from it, looking back on it, projecting forward to what could be.  I think I’ve had some success with that.  But it will be a few more months before I can write about it.

Over Spring Break I took this long hike around a lake, deep in the forest away from everything.  Complete silence.  No email or iPod or texting for several days.  Virtually no human contact.  I think it pays to be alone like that sometimes, nothing pulling on you.  It takes time for the lessons to sink in though.  I suspect I’ll write about it sometime when I’m upset, caught up in the madness of Boston, reflecting back on how much simpler life can be.

What was your inspiration for D.N.A.?

This is something I wrote in literally an hour, in between classes one day.  Most people don’t keep in touch with all their friends and family as well as they’d like.  I was tired of making excuses for that.  We’re always so busy, so distracted, so caught up in the moment.  The next deadline, the next exam, the next social engagement.  And then we flick on the TV or PlayStation.  Six months goes by and we realize we’ve been neglecting someone truly close to us.  And we justify or rationalize it away.  It’s something I catch myself doing all too often.  And if the people in our lives are what make it worth living, then why is it so damn hard to pick up the phone and tell them what they mean to us?

I think an old friend of mine had announced her wedding, and it just hit me really hard that we had lost touch over the years.  I hadn’t even met her fiancé.  I felt terrible that our friendship had withered so much over the years.  So DNA grew from that, and as it evolved it came to represent a number of relationships I’d come to neglect.

What is D.N.A. about? Walk us through it briefly.

There’s obviously a lot of metaphor behind it.  There are also a number of “inside jokes” you’d have to know me to fully appreciate.  For example, the “genetically late” is kind of a self-depracating joke I’ve shared with close friends for many years.  I was literally born “one month premature,” and the joke is that I’ve been making up for it ever since.  A few minutes late here and there, and soon enough I’ll have made up that extra month.

Again, only my close friends would really “get” this, and I think that’s part of the charm.  One of the things that makes friendships strong is those shared experiences, those inside jokes you’d never be able to explain to an outsider.  And yet, as I’m writing this, I know you understand the sentiment because you have the same dynamic with your own friends.

Fundamentally DNA is an apology for neglecting my friendships.  It’s saying “I don’t want to make excuses anymore, because you’re more valuable to me than these other responsibilities I hide behind.”

See Joseph Forbes’ poem DNA on the following page.

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