Jeff Selin, along with his wife, Rachel, founded Writers’ Dojo in the hopes of creating an incubator for evolving literary projects and a space that would attract amazing authors from around the world. The Dojo sits in the heart of Portland’s St. John’s area, along with Selin’s brother’s martial arts school. Since its founding in January, 2008, the Dojo has grown to include a thriving online journal, and has become a frequent gathering place for Portland’s literary and creative communities. Beyond his endeavors with the Dojo, Selin has worked as a copywriter, an advertising and branding professional, and is presently at work on a novel. We met at the end of February, 2009, to discuss online publishing, the Dojo, and his life as a writer.
DJ: At a time when people seem to going to poetry as a way to reflect and take solace in the world, there’s the question of how small presses and online journals continue to put it out there for the public to consume while also making it financially viable on their end. You must see this with WritersDojo.org.
JS: What’s interesting is it’s not an issue in Portland. The community here is incredible. It blows me away. We hear time and time again where big name poets come to town and they’re shocked. Literary Arts puts on an event and the place is sold out. The poets can’t believe it. How are we selling out the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for poetry? It’s unbelievable.
For WritersDojo.org, we’ve never had an issue finding and publishing amazing poetry. And our readership for poetry is off the charts. I know publishers in other states and other cities are struggling to find the amazing submissions and to find the readership for it. In Portland it’s not an issue. We’re something of an anomaly.
DJ: So we should change the name to Poetland?
JS: Along with all the other names…Stumptown, all the others.
We just published a podcast not too long ago by Diana Abu-Jaber. She was saying in the Middle East, people look at poets as the serious authors. For years and years, it didn’t matter if you were a professor or what genre you were in, if you were an intellectual, you wrote poetry. In Middle Eastern culture, in a lot of places, the poet is a very serious person, a person a letters, the elder statesmen of literary folk. And the novelists…the idea is, who can take a novelist seriously? You’re writing fiction.
DJ: Whereas here it’s the opposite.
JS: I think many people look to the poets here as…well, you’re a poet. It certainly puts an assumption on your politics, for example.
DJ: I mentioned to some of my workshop students that I write poetry, and the kids were beside themselves. “You write poetry?” And I said, “Yeah.” And they said, “Well, you don’t look like a poet. You don’t act like a poet.” These are 10-year-old kids. We went around the room and each kid described what a poet should look like. They had the weirdest impressions that involved everything from wearing moth-riddled sweaters to smelling like cats to walking around with your nose in the air.
JS: I think the idea of the poet, and what a poet is is changing all the time. And obviously poetry itself keeps changing. More and more, the younger crowd is looking toward spoken word poetry. Or kids realize that rap music is poetry. Somebody, maybe it was Rod Stewart or someone like that, back in the 80s was asked where all the great poets have gone. He said, “They’ve become musicians.”
DJ: I saw a Dylan quote recently where he said, “If I can put music to it, it’s a song. If I can’t, it’s a poem.”
DJ: Jumping to your own work, outside the Dojo, how is the balance for your own writing right now?
JS: For the last 15-years I always had one foot in advertising and also in journalism. Every creative professional I know, whether they’re a copywriter or a graphic designer, has this balancing act. Everyone wants to just do their creative work, but they have to put food on the table. Obviously, with the economy the way it is, it’s even more of an issue.
Lately I’ve been able to step away for the most part from advertising and work on my fiction most days. We’re very fortunate, and not a day goes by that I’m not happy for it. But I’m also looking at freelance work again because I have to. For me, it’s about prioritizing and keeping my creative work as a priority. What works for me…this idea that financial advisors have of paying yourself first. So every morning I pay myself first with my creative work. It’s when I feel most connected to the page. I spend the morning hours with my creative writing. Regardless of what happens with my professional life, I’m not going to let that go. I think that’s what happens with many professionals. They feel like they need to focus on whatever it is…writing for newspapers or magazines, or working with editors who might change their stuff too much but they feel like they need to take the gig. Or maybe they’re in advertising or PR and they let the creative stuff slide. And as the days and weeks and months go by, it’s harder and harder to get back to the page.
DJ: It is a challenge.
JS: I’ve been working on a novel for quite some time, and I’m getting close to finishing. The times that I’ve stepped away from it for something else, whether it’s a short story, or life happens, or whatever’s going on, it’s much harder to get back into it. Where am I, where’s the story arch, who are these characters? When I’m working on it every day, or I’m thinking about the story every day…if I step away for a month and try to go back, it’s challenging.
DJ: Everything becomes frozen in that spot where you’ve left it. I’m wondering if there’s ever any crossover between this work and that, or where this work (professional ) informs that work (the creative), where one begins to seep into the other?
JS: In the advertising world I’ve always been more of the brand, headline, creative type of copywriter. The concept of what is creativity and how do you access it on command – mood has nothing to do with it. As a professional, you need to wake up and have creativity on tap. What does that mean exactly? When do I feel more creative? It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for some time, so in that sense it overlaps. And when I was working in advertising full-time, I would write and do the marketing stuff sometimes for 12-hours a day, then come home and still have to find time to write. That’s where I developed my morning writing habit. Before I go give my creative energy to sell some widget, I’m going to write for myself.
Finding that creative juice, regardless of what you’re doing – my brother is an entrepreneur and a martial artist. Artist is right there in the title. For the Dojo, we’ve adopted the metaphor- and this concept connects to the martial arts, this idea of being a center for excellence. In business you’ll find it takes a lot of creativity to generate the energy of creating new business.
In advertising, I worked with designers, photographers, producers, web developers, etc., in creating this bigger brand concept. I always thought of it as creative. So the question wasn’t, “How do I stop doing this dry, boring stuff?” Because the energy and the project was always creative. The question was, “How do I stop focusing on selling products and services that I don’t really have a passion for?” Does the world need another BMW? I don’t think it does.
But there’s a mixed feeling in me about that. On one hand, products bring a lot of value, because they brings jobs, and the list goes on and on for how things play into the community and the economy. But if my passion isn’t 100% there, am I doing a disservice for my clients?
DJ: That’s a good point about the work itself being creative, because the work IS creative. The challenge is that idea of whether or not I want to support this, or if I’d rather be doing something else all together different.
JS: And on the other side of it, the fiction writing, I’m trying to be a professional writer. To me that means two big things. First, thick skin. I’m going to send things out, and they’re going to be rejected. Second is the showing up every day aspect. I’m going to write from this time to this time everyday, just like a full-time job. Where does mood come into it?
Having the discipline to come to the page every day…in the marketing world, it’s obvious. You’re going to sit in your cube, or wherever, and do stuff that you don’t want to do. That’s part of the distinction between the serious, professional writer, and someone who loves to write as a hobby.
The Dojo has a lot of members. Everyone’s serious about writing. When they come through the door they focus on their writing, and that’s what they’re here for. Many of those folks have other jobs or do other things, and there’s this sense of solace and community with other writers. The core members are professional writers. They use the space as their office. They’re here working.
When you see the amount of work they do, and the amount of daily effort that’s required to show up and keep plugging away every day, it’s a huge inspiration. The folks that are well published, the ones whose names are well recognized – they’re the quietest about what they’re doing. They’re here, their white earbuds go in, and they’re in their zone every single day, just writing, writing, writing, writing, writing. The level of prolificacy is phenomenal. For me, since I’ve been working on the same novel for four or five years, it’s especially interesting and inspiring.