As an author, musician, and artist, Jasmine Dreame Wagner, CC ’00, has established a clear place for herself in the world of the arts in the 14 years since she graduated Columbia University. Her third poetry collection, “Rings,” was recently released by Kelsey Street Press. Developing the work brought her to various sites around the world, enveloping her in the architectures and landscapes from which she draws much of her inspiration. Wagner spoke with Spectator about “Rings,” language, and finding a foothold in an unstable field.
You define your work as “exploration of the post-industrial landscape and the natural life that persists in the face of environmental degradation and decay.” Would you say your work is an attempt to make a change to current circumstances or to make a public statement on them?
Hopefully both. I just go to a place and write about what I see. And so whether or not there is intent in that, I mean I'm not a journalist, so I'm not writing a statement for change. I'm not writing as an activist, although I would like to see change. It's like a painting to me, so I go and create a painting. Does a painting ask for change? I don't think so. A painting just is. It just exists.
Where does “Rings” stand in your personal canon? Does it complement your past works or is this a sort of departure?
It's a debut full length and so I think of it more as a platform. I have two other manuscripts that I'm writing right now, and one is in contract for 2016. I'm really interested in hybridity and continuing to talk about landscape but also thoughts about aesthetics and music in addition to landscape. It is just a starting point more than a culmination I guess.
You seem to have done a pretty decent job of creating a career for yourself within the arts. Is there any sort of rhyme or reason to supporting oneself in the field of the arts?
I get asked that question all the time actually because I teach poetry and creative writing, and I have undergrad students who are really concerned about that, especially since 2008. The economy is really tough, and it's tough for everyone everywhere, but it’s also very tough for people graduating college and graduate school right now and in the past few years—especially people who are inclined to go into the arts. And I'd say being your own advocate is really important. I think we kind of live in an atmosphere of self-promotion right now, and it can be very tiring, but to believe in your work first of all, and be willing to put yourself forward for things. So if you are a writer, be willing to submit a lot, and not be daunted by the rejection. Rejection is just something people get all the time. Really push yourself to find out exactly what you like to do and pursue that beyond any perceived barrier.
There is always the question of whether or not to go to graduate school. I have an MFA, and there’s a lot of controversy out there as to whether or not an MFA is a good option because they can be very expensive if you don’t have funding, etc. But if you really believe that you want to spend unadulterated time on your work, I think that you should go get an MFA. You should try to find a program that is going to support you and give you work experience. So a program that will offer teaching experience, whether that is teaching your own class, or TAing, or a research assistantship—any kind of work like that you can get is extremely valuable.
Also, pertaining to being at school in New York, there is such a wide variety of internships that you can get. That’s also very controversial because unpaid internships are terrible, and I don’t believe in them. But there are some internships so that if you can find the time to do them even though you are not getting paid, there’s a lot of opportunity. I know that I have seen writers intern for certain magazines and then be published by them or eventually move up in the editorship, and that does happen.
Greater opportunity can be starting your own press, or starting your own reading series—you’re creating your own opportunity, and figuring out how to do that with your core group of friends has great potential, so even if it’s a small chapbook press, and you grow from that, it’s about creating your own opportunities and believing in yourself and promoting that.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Jasmine Dreame Wagner as an alumna of Columbia’s School of the Arts. She is a Columbia College graduate. Spectator regrets the error.