Jonathan Travelstead explores the austerity of the wilderness in “The Appalachian Trail” (Issue 4), a selection of poems from Conflict Tours. In this interview, he talks about discipline, woodworking, and the importance of routine.
Jonathan Travelstead served in the Air Force National Guard for six years as a firefighter and currently works as a full-time firefighter for the city of Murphysboro, and also as a co-editor for Cobalt Review. Having finished his MFA at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, he now works on an old dirt-bike he hopes will one day get him to the salt flats of Bolivia. He has published work in The Iowa Review, on Poetrydaily.com, and has work forthcoming in The Crab Orchard Review, among others. His first collection “How We Bury Our Dead” by Cobalt Press was released in March, 2015, and his “Conflict Tours” is forthcoming in Spring 2017.
What inspired you to create this piece? Each year my partner and I spend a week or so section hiking the Appalachian Trail by first dropping off a motorcycle near a trailhead of our intended stopping point, and then driving a truck to that year’s beginning point, and then hiking to it. With the unwritten logistics of this yearly plan in mind, I had always been wanting to work on a collection of pieces dealing with a speaker whom has a singular, pitbull-like focus about his task. Perhaps after last year’s hike I realized I wanted to explore that in the setting of an ongoing, physical journey.
Can you tell us how the tradition of hiking the Appalachian Trail began? What inspired you and your partner to drop a motorcycle off at the end of the trail? The tradition of hiking the Appalachian Trail began with a discussion by my partner and I as to what the idea of a ‘journey’ is, one which would take so long to complete that- even by breaking it into parts- we would forget the initial idea of hiking to reach a definable goal, and instead focus on such moment-to-moment tasks like breathing, and not starving. Some might call that ‘zen’.
One of the things we share is a love for is making seemingly difficult trips simple. For instance, in addition to the yearly hike or cross-state bicycle trip we leave the country twice each year on an allowance it would be nearly impossible to live on in the US which we make work by divvying up tasks upon arrival such as finding the most affordable local travel, or locating a supermarket so we can cook at the hostel.
Logistics: Making the difficult simple by breaking it down into smaller tasks. So it is with section hiking the Appalachians. Brainstorming how we could chip away at the trail instead of punishing our bodies with a four- to six-month through hike, we ultimately decided that downloading a motorcycle to our designated ending point, then driving the truck to our chosen trailhead would be our simplest, least time-consuming, and most affordable option. However, doing so does require remembering to squirrel your keys in the bottom of your pack and remembering to bring innumerable bungee straps so you can strap all your gear to your gas tank- sherpa-style- to the tail rack, gas tank, and fenders.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? This partial series from a longer series is a collection of poems I’d thought about for years, but had only just sit down to write late this last Spring, and it was one of those rare runs where I felt lucky in that they almost fell onto the page. Normally, I’m toiling over a poem for months until it feels in the range of completion, but these came quickly, almostwhole in a month or so.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? There was a time when air guitar and lipsynching “Welcome to the Jungle” had a positive effect, but for years now if I had to say another form of artistic expression may have informed my writing that expression would be through woodworking. Specifically, lathework. I enjoy the process of removing what doesn’t belong, or discovering some really nice grain hidden in a piece of burl that I try to make into a pen, or beer stein.
Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. Don’t laugh. I particularly enjoy reading selfhelp books to help understand motivations in human nature. Most recently, morning I’m not at work I read until I reach a particularly new idea or fresh understanding I mentally take with me on a jog. After, I sit down in a rocker with the phone turned off with my Macbook for about two hours. With only slight variations, that’s my morning routine the last few years.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? I read something completely unrelated to the topic I would like to explore, or drive until I find a stretch of country road I’ve never jogged before.
What is it about jogging that helps you to write? Jogging shares many of the meditative elements I value most, and which I also find in my other daily activities such as swimming, or bicycling. It’s a ritual, a keystone of discipline. Intensely private, for me it involves a measured beginning and an endpoint I’ve learned to value as much as starting breakfast, and finishing the dishes.
I believe discipline- in whatever form one chooses- keeps the creative conduits open, and prevents bottlenecks. Before my foot slaps the pavement, there is always a thought which- sustained through movement- I know will reach a natural ending point, sometimes before the run’s end.
As someone who fervently hopes discipline and persistence make up for lack of raw, innate ability, this is as much of a time of composition as it is of physical activity. So often I’ll sputter off with problems of where a poem is going, the voice, or the poem’s movement, and, while trying to keep my breathing and heart rate even on a difficult hill around the lake I may remember a contemporary poet, or author whose thrust I’m trying to match, and arrive, ragged and sweat-drenched at my doorstep with another direction for the poem.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about this piece, in particular, or about your creative process, in general? I would say that if these poems read as too comfortable at times that’s because they were when I wrote them. ‘I’, as in ‘Jonathan’ feel I am more clearly and autobiographically the speaker in these than in most other pieces I’ve worked on.
We asked Jonathan to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
When and where were you happiest? Forgive the following response if it comes across as saccharine, but I can’t help it. While I feel it is not a popular idea to think of a successful writer as ‘happy’, I most unabashedly am. I visit my family who are not too close, or too far weekly, my fiancee and I are able to leave the country several times a year or, and I love working as a firefighter for my city as much as I do writing.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Sweet. Really?
What is your greatest extravagance? Travel. I will subsist on cans of tuna and eggs every day just to be sure I have enough money for that flight to New Zealand. Update: It was worth it!
Which talent would you most like to have? All of them.
What is your motto? For me every motto involving empowerment, positivity, and success, fall under the acknowledgment of one’s abilities I find in the phrase ‘I am’.
This interview was curated by Devon Halliday, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a Comparative Literature student at Brown University.