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Q&A with Jon Labrousse

Jon Labrousse is many things: a military brat, a musician, a teacher, and an award-winning poet. He grew up all over the US, and was inspired to become a writer in third grade with the encouragement of his teacher and classmates who all enjoyed reading and hearing the stories he dreamed up. Jon also became a Montessori middle school teacher and aims to help each student discover and develop their most authentic selves. Read on to learn more about what inspires Jon to write amazing poetry, the principles and values that inform his teaching style, and what advice he has for people hesitant to take a writing class.

Q: Where are you from and where did you grow up? 

My father was a United States Marine Corps officer. I was born in Cherry Point, North Carolina, just after my father served in the U.S. War in Vietnam. 

Shortly after he returned from Vietnam, he was stationed in the Philippines, so my mom and I lived in North Bend, Oregon with her family. Then we moved to Puyallup, Washington, then Yuma, Arizona, then Whidbey Island, Washington. We landed in Aiea, Hawaii, the summer before my freshman year of high school. I was grateful to spend all four years of high school in Hawaii. It’s a magical place.

I’ve lived in Oregon for over 30 years now, off and on, since I attended Oregon State University. I started out there as an Electrical Engineering major, and ended up with a BA in English, and a bunch published, and award-winning poetry.

Q: What are some other things you’re passionate about?

I’ve been a Montessori middle school teacher for the last 13 years. I’m passionate about civic responsibility and working to live together in our communities in a more healthy way. 

Montessori education is fundamentally about building the personal capacity in every one of our students to become the human they want to be in the world. This goal resonates strongly with me. I want to be the kind of person who helps people live their best lives, authentically and with integrity.

Q: What sparked you to become a writer?

I knew I was going to be a writer in third grade when my teacher, Mrs. Pirkle, invited us to read the stories we’d written. I loved writing stories, and I loved Mrs. Pirkle. I would write stories that featured my friends from class as the characters, and then I got to read them to the class. It wasn’t long before everyone in class was begging to be a character in one of my stories.

Sharing the stories became the main motivation to write the stories. This has remained true throughout my life. It’s what got me into slam poetry. Writing for an audience who knows you, and who you come to know is a powerful experience as a writer. For me, anyway. I love to make people feel things with my words, whether it’s humor or horror! 

It’s very rewarding to cause an emotional response to the words you are speaking out loud to a group of people. It’s an amazing feeling when you finally become known as, “that poet.”

Q: Have you ever struggled to write something, or are there certain genres or forms of writing you just don’t like or feel confident in?

Poetry is something I can’t help writing at this point in my life. It’s become the tool I use to process my thoughts about anything that’s puzzling me, or exciting me, or frustrating me. It’s kind of fun that I’ve made some money as a poet. Most don’t.

I really want to write novels, though. I’ve written three drafts of novels. I just don’t have the energy to go back and do anything with them. The thing I love most about the poetry I’m writing these days is that I spend a couple of hours on 32 syllables, and then it’s done! Next…

My mind just doesn’t do long form. My dream project, if I had the money or the courage, is to write an episodic series of stories that would let me wander a bit more than a novel. It’s just been too much of a commitment to take on while I was teaching full-time.

Q: How do you keep yourself motivated and inspired as a literary professional?

I remember when I was in college, as a 20-year-old, and had decided, all-in, that “I’m a writer.” I was a terrible literary story writer. I loved reading literary fiction, but my imagination just wasn’t interested in writing serious stories. Still isn’t.

I’m the guy at a party where everyone is socializing, who is standing in the corner giggling to himself. I love the party that’s happening in my brain. I don’t why I’m like this. I am easily amused by my imagination. I often laugh out loud about something that came up. I write that stuff down!

Writing for me is mostly self-discovery. The stuff I write to share is all about engaging an audience, having fun together. It’s why I’ve moved from poetry slam to being a musician. Nobody’s dancing at a poetry slam.

Q: How do you describe your teaching style/philosophy?

I’m a “get you excited/infuriated” kind of teacher. I’ve taught Montessori middle school for the last 13 years. Social Justice is what I’m most passionate about. In my experience, it’s what most of us are “passionate” about, even if we don’t have the metacognitive acknowledgment of this truth.

When it comes to writing, I’m all about sharing and feedback. Getting on the stage and pulling out your guts for a live audience isn’t something you should do until you’ve weighed your words with people you trust.

Writing is risky business. I try to meet folks where they are, and pull them into deeper waters when they’re ready. We are all stronger and more articulate than we believe.

Q: What can people expect if they decide to participate in your class?

We’re going to play with poetry forms in order to think deeply about the editing process of writing poetry.

We’re going to write a bunch of short stuff and share it to make sure we understand the basic mathematical and rhyming rules of “Poetry.”

Then we’re going to play with several poetry forms to delight in the restrictions imposed by the forms.

It’s going to be a write/share, write/share kind of affair.

Q: What advice would you give someone who is hesitant about taking a literature or writing course (with you or anyone!)?

Dive in. The best workshops I’ve ever done, as a writer, have been the ones where there were short writing assignments, and then I got to share what I wrote.

Write for your audience. Don’t be afraid to share. Make a goal for the reaction you’re hoping to achieve. 

Be honest with yourself about how your message is received. Did the audience laugh? Cringe? Lean forward?

Don’t take anything personally. Take the audience response as information about how to write differently. Or not. You are the author. 

Most importantly, I need to say that you don’t have to write for an audience to be a successful artist.

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