Justin, Etc. and Jason Schenheit met through the creative writing department of San Francisco State University, though they never had a class together. The two found themselves in an amoebic group of students who met in bars and cafes.
Schenheit, and his collective, the Gorilla Press, recently published Etc.’s first collection of poems, “Self-Portrait of the Poet Suicided by the MFA Degree.” The title is a mash-up of Antonin Artaud‘s “Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society” and James Joyce‘s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” – it encapsulates Etc.’s poetic style as well as his attitude toward the creative process.
“I was disillusioned with the program after about a year, year and a half or so,” he said, “but I stuck with it anyway. I had a lot of people supporting me with my writing, but I just didn’t feel like that’s something I wanted to work on too much, or take too serious. … I took it serious enough. I did the work. But I decided not to take myself too seriously about it.”
He says he came up with the title one day “in a class I didn’t want to be in,” and turned it in “more or less as a dare. It seemed to work. Something is really funny about having that title inside the library of the school I went to.”
That playfulness is prevalent in Etc.’s poems, which, though they can in fact be very serious, contain an element of whimsy that seems to power them. “I tend to view my work kind of like collage, not as like I’m writing something,” Etc. said. “It’s more that I just cull things from everywhere, mix, match, paste it … see what goes where. I go through so many drafts that I don’t even save them anymore; I just drag lines everywhere.”
Paul Hoover, co-editor of “New American Writing” and editor of both editions of “Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology,” taught Etc. at S.F. State and said his poetry is “pruned to such a perfect excess, we would never want anything less.” He also said “Justin is one of the most original poets I know of.”
The book, the first full-length by the Gorilla Press, was a collaborative effort. Etc. asked a group of friends to pick their favorites from his thesis, and included “pretty much all” the poems that overlapped alongside his favorites. Poet and visual artist Truong Tran, another of Etc.’s professors, provided artwork for the cover.
“I just got lucky that people liked my work enough to help me,” Etc. said. When asked how his self-admitted proclivities toward hermeticism intersected with the collective process, he said: “Collaborating is not hard for me to do. It comes natural. But it’s also really easy for me to not see anyone for a month.”
Here, he trailed off, resuming with the thread of a joke. “I just look at it as another collage. Another cut and paste. I cut and paste my friends.”
IF YOU GO
Justin, Etc.: With Amy K. Bell and Jill Tomasetti. 7 p.m. Thursday. Bird & Beckett, 653 Chenery St., S.F. (415) 586-3733.
Photo by Evan Karp, Special to The Chronicle