The very first time I heard Jasen Sousa read, I knew he was something special. Something different. His energy and rhythm were those of a young rapper, and his topic that day was a woman lost, a story from the streets. Passion spilled out of every word he spoke. It was hard to take one’s eyes off of him, because his own eyes burned. I didn’t know much about Jasen, and I wondered if he was a musician or a poet. It turns out he’s a little of both.
Ten years later, Jasen has established himself as a writer, a publisher, and an advocate for people whose voices often go unheard. A Boston native who spent his childhood and teenage years being schooled, as he puts it, on the streets of Somerville, he graduated from Emerson College before completing his MFA at Pine Manor College.
Jasen has worked extensively with youth in the Boston area, with homeless individuals, and with refugees from Latin America. For the past few years he has been teaching reading, writing, and literacy to adult learners studying to acquire their high school diplomas. He currently works as an academic advisor at UMASS Boston.
Jasen has published a number of books through an independent press he founded and developed: J-Rock Publishing. He has made guest appearances all around the globe, and I’m pleased and honored that he took the time to make one of his appearances here for “Writers in the Trenches.”
FRD: You have always struck me as a kind of modern troubadour; I envision you walking the streets of Boston, creating stories and poems about the people and places you see. How would you compare yourself to the troubadours of old?
JS: First off, thank you for the comparison and for the insight. Thank you for taking the time to interview me and thank you to the readers who are interested in learning more about me.
I started writing when many of my childhood friends ended up in juvenile detention centers and psychiatric hospitals. I would write raps of things that were going on in the neighborhood, in the streets, so they could stay up on important information. You know, who was sleeping with one another, who was fighting with one another, who got robbed, who was on drugs, who got kicked out of their parent’s house. All of the deep information that people post on their Facebook Timelines now. I grew up as an athlete and I didn’t grow up in a literary environment. My family are not readers and my friends didn’t read, so literacy and books were just not part of my world. However, when I would bring these raps and lyrical tales to my friends, they would devour the content and crave more.
I wrote on park benches, I wrote underground in subway stations, I wrote in cemeteries, I wrote about life, I wrote trying to find life, and yes, the individuals and environments play a big role in my work. They are often looking over my shoulder as I craft my lines.
The biggest difference I think in this comparison is that almost none of my poems are love poems. I never wrote poems to influence one person to love me. My poems are about my own internal love and passion that I want to share with all of my readers, with the world. They are introspective, and inquisitive, and promote self-discovery and not just personal satisfaction.
FRD: Your work is gritty, real, and youthful. When you read your poetry out loud, it does almost sound like rap music. You don’t shy away from difficult subjects; you stare them straight in the face. How do you choose the subjects of your work?
JS: I have always tried to tell the stories of individuals who might not have a voice, or individuals society might not give a voice to. I know them the best and I relate to them the most and feel like their lives and their stories have a place in literature. Along the way, I have realized that literature, and poetry specifically, is a very elitist form of art. It’s almost written with gates around it to keep certain people out. I believe that writers and poets sometimes get too caught up in trying to prove how intelligent they are, that they lose the message they are trying to convey to the reader. I write for the common person who enjoys art and creativity and wants something to escape in when they come home from working in the back of a kitchen. Material that can help them get through the night and find the motivation to get up the next morning and do it all over again. This is the world I am from and when I write, I think about the amazing individuals, normal people, hard working people, who have taught me more about life, more than almost anything I have ever learned in a classroom.
FRD: One of the reasons I started this interview series was to combat some of the elitism you’re talking about and to give voice to all kinds of writers at all stages of the writing life. One thing that’s interesting about your writing path is that from the start, you have published, promoted, and sold your own work. What made you forgo the usual route of seeking publications in literary journals, or finding and agent or publishers for your books?
JS: I am a very independent person and at age 18 I decided that I would start my own small press. I have always been against self-publishing and that has never been the avenue I have taken because I think it can be lazy. There are a lot of companies out there that want you to pay them to copy and paste your work and put it into a book and sell it.
I researched how a large publishing house ran, and I basically created the same thing on a smaller scale. I hired editors, graphic designers, worked with local printing presses, built relationships with distributors and book stores.
I realized early on how crucial editing is to writing. To have another set of eyes judge and shape your work. One author, one person, cannot a create story or poem on their own. To me, that’s the huge difference between small presses and self-publishing.
I have always been good at selling myself because my story and the stories I write are authentic, and I think my readers realize that and appreciate it. There may come a time when I work with other publishers and agents, but it just has never been part of my plan.
FRD: Your images on instagram are as striking as your writing. When did you get into photography, and what does it express that your writing doesn’t?
JS: Wow, great question. I fell in love with photography by trying to create and capture unique images for my book projects and it has evolved into another art form for me. As an artist, in writing or photography, we are trying to capture messages and images to move people, to make them remember and notice something about the world or about themselves that maybe they have been too busy to pick up on. I love the immediacy of photography. I love going out into beautiful or gritty environments and being alone with my thoughts and finding something that speaks to me. Something that might live in my brain that I can’t write about, but I can capture a still image of it. I love being able to capture an image and share it with the world quickly. Yes, there is also editing involved, but it doesn’t take as long as putting together a book project. It’s more of a direct connection with my supporters. For the past 4 or 5 months, I have challenged myself to post a picture on Instagram Monday-Friday and write a little original poem every morning on the train on my way to work that ties in with the picture. It has been such a cool experience to try and combine two of my favorite mediums.
FRD: Tell us about your latest poetry collection, The Underground Man.
JS: It is an important collection that fits well within my poetry anthology series that I have been working on for over a decade. It began as a collection that would chronicle my experiences riding the subway in Boston, but it morphed into a collection of poems about individuals operating beneath the surface of regular society and what that looks and sounds like. The collection deals a lot with solitude and how it impacts writers and it impacts people in general. This collection of poems is very tactical and each word is chosen very carefully and it is a collection I am very proud of.
FRD: What are your ultimate goals, in terms of your writing?
JS: Writing has saved my life along with basketball and photography. These are three forms of art and expression and outlets that I have used over the years to help with all of the trauma I have experienced. I hope that my writing can bring peace, inspiration, and hope to those who pick it up because all the stories and poems that I create, they are really about survival. That is the biggest story I could ever create through all of this.
FRD: You, your work, and your methods of getting your work out into the world are all unconventional. Do you have words of encouragement for other writers — or just people — out there who just don’t fit the usual mold?
JS: I guess everything about my story and my life is unconventional, but I am proud about that. Don’t be afraid of failure, and don’t be afraid of success; they are often purchased together. With any form of art, you need to be open to criticism and judgment just like you would in your normal life. Embrace it and do your best to make yourself the best person you can be. I have been doing all of this now for over 15 years, if you love something, if you are passionate about something, don’t give up on it. It’s funny, because when I go speak at high schools, or sell my books in public, people always say, “You don’t look like a writer/author.” I guess that has been my motivation all along.
FRD: Jasen’s website and blog can be found at http://www.jasensousa.net/. Readers can connect with Jasen on Instagram: @jasensousa