Relinquishing Profundity: A Conversation with Jo Urtasun
Curated by Heather Gluck
I met with Jo Urtasun to discuss her series London Shorts, two fragments of which are published in this issue of Some Kind of Opening in connection with the theme “Openings and Closures.” Jo is a Basque poet and translator writing in English and Spanish, who grew up between Bilbao and the UK and now lives in New York. She received her MFA from Columbia University in 2022. Jo and I had a chat about writing, which included musing about the prose poem form, cringing over the writing of your younger self, a Jaguar that Maggie Thatcher would have loved, and the rejection of artistic depth in favor of unintellectual bliss.
HG: Thank you for meeting with me Jo. It was such a pleasure to get to read “On Moving” and “On a Visit to Hastings and Rye.” When did you write these poems?
JU: I was in my first year of Columbia’s MFA program doing Zoom classes. It was 2020, six months into the pandemic. I was stuck in my flat in London, unable to go home or see my family, and so London was the only framework I had for writing, outside of these conversations with strangers on a screen. I was finding it hard to find any inspiration or to live any experience that felt worth writing about, so I decided to tap into the everyday, and use the books I was reading at the time as references. The fragment was the adequate vessel for that because it felt conversational, anecdotal, and low pressure.
HG: Is that what you were thinking of with the prose form, too, something conversational?
JU: Yes. And having previously done my studies in London, I can say that the prose poem was seen as something very American, a sort of bastardized version of what poetry should be. I bought into all those narratives that were fed to me. Then I started reading Montaigne for one of my classes, and his essays are titled in the form of “On X.” I found that format really liberating, and I began using it to write these diaristic-reportage-tonally-loose prose fragments. At the time I was also reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a text that was discovered underneath a court woman’s pillow in Heian-period Japan, and it’s filled with lists, which I started to emulate. There was also Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was written in the second person, and that was a tool I found I really liked. It allows disassociation from the shame one might have about reporting their very intimate thoughts.
HG: There’s an overriding idea of intentional mental blankness in these fragments. In “Moving” the speaker is “happy and unintellectual: sitting cross-legged on the floor eating mango sorbet,” and in “Hastings and Rye” the speaker “submits to a sunny indifference when reading a billboard with William the Conqueror's timeline.” Why this connection between pleasure and a lack of thought?
JU: In the fragments, with their prose form and their casual tone, I’m making a move to relinquish profundity and meaning and instead just enjoy reporting anecdotes. It’s an idea I keep coming back to. Whenever I try to take myself seriously it never works. I think I just felt like an imposter at the time and still do, everyone does I suppose.
HG: Can you tell me what inspired “On a Visit to Hastings and Rye”?
JU: While we were stuck at home during the pandemic my brother and I bought a fourth-hand midnight blue Jaguar, and that became our passport to get out of the city when it felt too stifling. There was a weekend when we drove an hour and a half down to the coast. We were just walking around Hastings and Rye and looking at the blue plaques which indicated historical sites, and it felt just… dull. It was the turning of the season and we were in lockdown, and we didn't know if we’d be able to get out of the city again. So the poem stemmed from that experience, of craving a place that you love, which at that time was London, but also needing to get out, but also still feeling somehow restless.
HG: You bought a Jaguar?
JU: Yeah, my brother is an art collector and he finds good deals in random little auction houses. It was so beautiful, white leather interiors, slick navy blue outside, really long bottom and really long top. We always used to joke that it was the car Maggie Thatcher would have driven around.
HG: Both poems are very concerned with place, but also with time, specifically the fall. “On Moving” begins with September and “Hastings and Rye” ends with the autumn summer. What is the significance of this time for you?
JU: Autumn is the end of something as well as a state of anticipation, probably just for a very long hermit winter. But in autumn there’s always the sense that… you feel like you might not have been engaged enough, that you might have wasted what came before.
HG: Wasn’t your graduate thesis titled something to do with September?
JU: Yes it was called “then September.” My professors told me it was too morose for a manuscript with so much youth, which I completely get. But for me, autumn doesn’t exclusively involve death. I see it as a time of transformation rather than a stalling or an ending.
HG: How do you feel that these poems relate to this issue’s theme of Openings and Closures? To me, “On Moving” is a poem about growing up. You start the poem with college and a series of firsts—first night in a new apartment, first time meeting the neighbors—and then ends with learning—the speaker learns to forgive her friends, to bleach her tub. Is this a closure of youth, and an opening of a new era?
JU: Both of these poems are anchored in the past tense, and there’s something about—I hate the word nostalgia—but there’s something about remembrance there. On Moving is definitely about beginnings, and then at the end the speaker is called an ingénue, that fun concept. Maybe it’s too puritanical to say, but there are things you learn and leave behind when you’re young. That time of life is one of liberation, and engaging with the city that opened you up and taught you these lessons. And it’s not specific to London, everyone has that place.
HG: What was it like editing the London Shorts in New York?
JU: I felt a constructive disassociation, but it definitely made me feel I had left something behind. There’s a feeling of restlessness in the fragments, but also a sense that once you’ve left home, your notion of it will never be the same upon return. I wouldn't write like this anymore, in this block or in this tone. My tone is still anecdotal but it’s probably become more flippant and consumerist since moving to New York.
JU: There’s definitely a naivete in these fragments, which is cute but somewhat cringeworthy.
HG: Why wouldn't you write in the prose block anymore?
JU: Because I have rediscovered my love of space and the line break, and I still don’t fully understand how a sentence works. The line break has to be so precise. In verse poetry every word has to be well-chosen; there has to be a reason for it to be there. It’s a nice constraint to engage with.
HG: It's interesting to think of the line break as providing more structure than the sentence, when I think poets often see verse as a liberation from the constraints of written grammar. But it does make sense.
JU: And in prose poems, unlike straight prose, you do still have to think about the line, the words you’re ending and beginning on. It's an art in itself. But the rhythm of a prose line is completely different from that of verse, it lacks that nice pause that the line break provides.
HG: What kind of writing are you doing at the moment?
JU: I’m working on what is currently the middle section of my manuscript. It’s called “On People in Their Twenties,” which is a title I really need to change. It’s a lot about fashion—which gets a bad rap; I could intellectualize it and say it was eco-fashion poetics or whatever, but it’s not. It’s really just an extension of something that’s rooted in me, which is collecting objects and beautiful things, and how wild that impulse can be in a place like New York, where appearances are so intrinsic to who people are, how they perceive themselves, and how others perceive them.
HG: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Jo, it’s been terrific.
JU: Thank you so much. It’s been great.
Heather Gluck is a poet and editor from New York. She received her MFA from Columbia University. Her work is published in Palette Poetry, Beyond Words, and High Shelf Press among others. She is the Managing Editor for MAYDAY Magazine and a Nonfiction Editor at Majuscule. See more at heathergluck.com.