Jason Carney, an alumni of the Wilkes Graduate Creative Writing program, is due to release his memoir, Starve the Vulture, in January of 2015 with Kaylie Jones Books. Starve the Vulture has already received excellent feedback, including a review from Kirkus Book Reviews which states, “Carney will easily win sympathy for his life, in which he has persevered to show others the hard work of his salvation.” The novel opens violently, with a car crash happening right before Carney’s eyes, just before a moment of epiphany which leads to Carney’s “grace”. This traumatic experience opens the novel with an enticing sense of danger, consistent with the chaotic uncertainty of Carney’s early life. There is an immediate understanding that the contents of this memoir will not be for the faint of heart.
Akashic’s website describes the memoir as, “A lyrical, mesmerizing debut from Jason Carney who overcomes his own racism, homophobia, drug addiction, and harrowing brushes with death to find redemption and unlikely fame on the national performance poetry circuit. Woven into Carney’s path to recovery is a powerful family story, depicting the roots of prejudice and dysfunction through several generations.” (You can head to Carney’s page on Akashic’s site by clicking on the book cover to the right.)
One of the most prominent themes in the book is the importance of tolerance and compassion, and how those two things led to Carney’s redemption. Carney learns–through his relationship with an empathetic gay man dying of AIDS–to set his prejudices aside. When Carney does this, it leads to a greater, horrific discovery about the nature of his personal hatred for homosexuals–but instead of getting stuck in his own tragedy, he shares what he has learned about himself and the root of bigotry to students all over the country. Carney teaches others, when we lash out at a group of people, we learn to do so from personal experience and past prejudice.
Recently, Carney had the honor of performing a TED event at Mountain View College near Dallas, Texas. During his talk, he discussed the origins of his family, the hatred he once held for minority groups, and how he was taught to use poetry to define his world. He recites a few of his poems to a completely enraptured crowd, comparing past crimes against minority groups to modern statistics about the disparity between black and white inmates in America. He urges “White America” to have an honest discussion about the continued segregation of minority groups in our country, the silence of hatred, and the lack of conversation that perpetuates it. Carney closes the discussion by stating, “White America needs to have an honest conversation with itself because we segregate ourselves and we talk about freedom.”
I urge readers to check out his talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8ZiB3gjwo8
Carney’s memoir is one of the most important memoirs you will ever read. I encourage everyone to get their hands on this book, which is available for preorder on Amazon. Until then, I was fortunate enough to have Jason Carney answer a few pre-emptive questions I had about the nature of Starve the Vulture, which you can read below!
Tell me a little about your book. What does it mean to you?
Starve the Vulture is the deciphering of the signs of my life. The breaking down of moments to their meaning, when a person takes a look back at their life trapped within severe moments of adversity.
I know that you mostly write poetry–why the switch? Was this a story you had been planning to tell for a long time?
I have been telling this story for 15 years on poetry stages and college campuses. So the progression from poetry to prose seems like a natural one. I had no intention of writing this story until my mother died in 2007. After my plunge into the final throes of addiction and the car wreck, I went to NYC and stayed on long-time friend and American Poets Roger Bon-Air Agard’s couch in Brooklyn. The next thirty days were spent at the Spring Lounge in Manhattan. Eight hours a day, in the back corner with my laptop. From those crazed and drying out hours of writing came 47,000 words which have been molded and revised into the present thread of the story. The original title of the book was Flowers from my Mother’s Funeral.
How was writing this similar to or different from writing poetry?
Similar in the sense that a narrative is a narrative. The poetry slam thrives on narratives, which I think helped me cut to the core of the scenes and not waste time with bullshit that did not belong. I honed my ability to bare my skin in that arena. You cannot hide in front of an audience. After a while, they become part of your writing ritual. I mean the writer brings this influence into the writing process with them.
Was writing this memoir a cathartic experience for you?
In the sense that this book gave me a gift. I wrote it to heal part of myself. This is the gift of this type of project. All writing should be done first for the writer and second for the audience. You cannot give away what you do not have. You cannot manufacture the treasure either, it will manifest the way it wants to in the writer’s life. The gift I received from vulture was not the one for which I wrote it. However, when it presented itself, I fell to my knees in that dorm room in gratitude. I refer to a spiritual gift here—no money or movie option or publishing contract can give this type of gift to you. It must come from the writing. From the universe to the artist, a thank you for the excavation of their bones.
Writing about things does tend to stir up the past and allows old things to resurface in your mind, were there any memories that came back to you that surprised you while writing this?
No not really. That is not true, when I wrote about spending time with my grandparent from the ages of 7-12 on Friday and Saturday nights, I was surprised at the hidden emotions of happiness
that I had denied myself for many years. The chapter was eventually cut from the book, yet when I read those passages I still tear up and cry. Happiness is hard for me.
I know that you had to change a lot of names for the memoir. Is there a concern that the people you’ve written about might recognize themselves and be angry?
I tried to write folks the way I remembered them being. I wanted to change names when discussing illegal acts. I am willing to put my actions out there, but I don’t have a right to expose anyone else. Those involved will recognize themselves, those not involved will not figure their identity. I will not tell them. The names in the book are not clues either. They are just random choices, they hold no secret meaning or metaphor. Cuban came from the lunch I was eating, Yardstick from the yardstick my son was using as a Light-Saber. And so on.
How do you feel the experiences you’ve had have shaped the man you are today?
Everywhere you go there you are. You are the constant in your own life.
Do you ever feel embarrassment in your professional life because of where you’ve come from, or prouder because of the adversity you’ve overcome that others have never been tested with?
I don’t measure myself against you or anyone else. I am unique to me and as common as everyone. No one is more or less than anyone around them. But I offer for you to under-estimate or overlook me. I like to be an unexpected surprise.
I usually make the last question, “What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?” But you have a story so powerful, so interesting, and very unique. I think a better question might be, “What advice do you have for other members of the human race who are faced with adversity?”
In the words of Jimmy V. “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Throwing your arms up into the air is a sign of praise as much as it is a sign of surrender. People should be happy for what gifts they do have, especially amid all the clamoring for what they do not have.
Jason Carney, a performance poet from Dallas, Texas, is a four-time National Poetry Slam Finalist, honored as a Legend of the Slam in 2007. He appeared on three seasons of the HBO television series Russell Simmons’ Def Poets. Jason has performed and lectured at some of our nation’s finest colleges and universities as well as high schools and juvenile detention centers from California to Maine. A graduate of Wilkes University MFA Program for Creative Writing, where he was an honored winner of the Etruscan Prize, the Bergman Foundation Scholarship, and the Norris Church-Mailer Scholarship. He is Co-founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit Young DFW Writers.