Photo Credit: Allan Mestel

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Letter to Jonah on the Border” in its free verse form has many italicized offset lines that seem to come from voices other than the speaker’s. Can you tell us more about how you chose to incorporate multiple voices and how you approached presenting those on the page.

Jeff Dingler: I wanted the reader to experience the freneticism of the US-Mexican border, a clash of languages, cultures, people, policies, and willpowers. As a writer and storyteller, I’m obsessed with how voice affects not only the written or spoken language but also the narrative—the way the story is told. If you travel to the border today, you will hear a thousand different micro-stories about what is going on, a thousand different experiences. It would’ve been impossible to write this poem and not include some of the stories I heard (and all the voices are based on real people).

I’m also a classically trained musician who loves the Baroque period, loves polyphonic music with all those overlapping voices. When you add multiple voices to anything, it kind of supercharges the work and gives it this complexity and multifacetedness that is hard to replicate otherwise.

How and where I placed these voice snippets in the poem was less logical, more so based on flow and balance and counterbalance with the main voice. Some found their place immediately and others had to move around some before settling in around the central monologic column.

RR: We love the liminality in this poem, in images of fathering a book, a baby, the promise of a new life for a refugee. Do you feel there is some special opportunity or power in that which is yet to be manifested?

JD: I don’t know if I’ve thought about it that way before, but “opportunity for power” is certainly a way to look at it. There’s a lot of freedom in gray areas or liminal spaces—as a creative person, I’m kind of fascinated by what can be accomplished when a moment or piece of dialogue or even a whole poem (like this one) can straddle multiple emotions or layers of interpretation. For instance, I love in a movie or book when I don’t know if I’m supposed to laugh or cry or both. I love when I find myself empathizing with or rooting for the “antagonist.” Life is filled with this wonderful expressive dimorphism. To deny it or section it off seems like a mistake.

RR: In exploring more of your work, we found that on top of writing poetry, you’re a novelist, journalist and prolific essayist. Can you give us a peek into your process or strategies for producing work across genres?

JD: It’s certainly an excellent question, and I’m not certain I have a good answer, other than to say that every piece (whether a one-hundred-word magazine blurb or a twenty-page short story) is an individual. Some pieces will get published because you have a writing job and have no choice but to produce an editorial or review or op-ed, others because you submitted them at a timely moment or found a timely “news peg” to attach (many of my “literary” essays wound up in mainstream magazines because of a news peg), and others will find a home through a lot of revision or re-imagining. Several cut sections from the novel I’ve written have been published as standalone pieces (a lot of the language in “Letter to Jonah” is from the book). Certainly rely on your writer’s tool belt and intuition, but you ought to approach every piece individually and be open and flexible with how it might find its way into the world.

RR: You explore a variety of topics from the use of psychedelics to your relationship with your parents with a remarkable vulnerability that is refreshing and magnetic. How do you maintain this transparency and vulnerability in your work?

JD: Another good question and the disappointing answer is this is just part of who I am, as a person and a writer. It’s difficult for me to hold back what I’m thinking and feeling, which results in some intense moodiness (especially around the Holidays, hah). I also have a background in acting and music (I used to joke that I’m a jack of all poorly-paid trades) and so I know when one gets onstage (or in front of the page) there is no holding back—it’s a terrible mistake to hold back, really in anything in life. Make it big, make it grand and over the top. There is no tomorrow performance guaranteed. So what choice do we have as entertainers and performers but to expose ourselves—the very nature of what we do is exposing ourselves. Being vulnerable is like being paid to bleed. Some might say that writing isn’t very good pay—but I used to donate plasma during grad school, so I’ve bled for less.

RR: We read you’re working on a new novel called Mother of Exiles. Would you tell us more about this new project or something else you’re creating?

JD: Mother of Exiles is a multi-voiced narrative about detention-deportation in the United States. It follows a real group of immigration activists known as Witnesses who are attempting, through nonviolent protest, to close down a camp for migrant minors in Florida. It all started with a piece I broke in the Washington Post about the founder of the Witnesses, a man who drove from New York to West Texas to hold a months-long vigil in front of one of these migrant detention centers, which are really prison camps. And what was going on years ago under Trump is going on today under Biden. The Witnesses inspired many of us to believe that “seeing is subversive.”

I began writing the book in September 2019 and finished it earlier this year. The first chapter was recently published in Big Bend Literary Magazine, and a second chapter is forthcoming in Canyon Voices. The novel was also named runner-up in The Writers College’s 2021 Global Novel Writing Competition and a standalone chapter recently won second place in the international Creators of Justice Literary Awards. The book hasn’t found a publisher yet but it will find its way into the world one way or the other because it (and I) have no other choice.


Read “Letter to Jonah on the Border” by Jeff Dingler in Issue 11.1.