Jason Vasser

UMSL Digital Humanities: Oral History
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´╗┐Dr. Obermark 0:03 Okay. Oh, could you could you state your name for the record,


Jason Vasser 0:10 Jason, Nicholas Vasser

Dr. Obermark 0:14 I didn't know that was your middle name.

Dr. Obermark 0:17 Um, so I think just to get us started, if you could talk to us at all about like your own writing or any language practices, how you see that connected to I don't know in your email you wrote to me You said that you study the self through creative work so I thought that was really interesting and so I wonder if you could just tell us more about what that means to you how you see your use of language connected to yourself and things like that because that's a lot of the stuff that comes up a lot of time and time again and the scholarship we're reading in this class.

Sure is really is cyclical because I first started writing poetry when I was in middle school, I'm into Visual performing arts and market Middle School. And my parents are going through a divorce at the time so I really needed an outlet. And my English teacher brought in Langston Hughes.

Jason Vasser 1:05 Some other poetry and I really kind of enjoyed reading poetry. You know I enjoyed that whole thing of poetry and so as a youngster, I was really into literature poetry. And it was self it was all about me trying to make sense of my little world. You know, and then it became more, the person really was political I mean it's a gender studies theory, but for me, the person was really political because as I got older, I found that my poetry was really a voice, a mechanism that I can use to convey messages in a non threatening way. It's very difficult to express oneself, you don't have the words, but when you are introduced to metaphor, it makes it easier to convey messages. And so I was able to use the craft of poetry to express myself in ways that otherwise would not have been able to do.

Jason Vasser 2:01 When I first started doing poetry as an adult, I was doing spoken word poetry as I call it, and a lot of the poetry was very angry he was very against the system.

Jason Vasser 2:12 But I found that yelling and screaming wasn't the answer. And so I needed to find a different way to create my, my art in a way that was constructive. And so I wanted to do an MFA in part because I wanted to learn the craft of poetry that can appeal to all audiences because it didn't make sense to preach to the choir and made more sense to talk to people who, you know, didn't look like me as well. Right. And so I use my poetry to express myself even as an adult and when Ferguson happened. It was such a, a moment because you know you read about the civil rights movement he read about the Harlem Renaissance and you read about different movements in history but you never get to live a moment for yourself. So Ferguson was that moment for me was able to move in historical moment I went to McClure High School, right up the street and James Knowles, the mayor of Ferguson, we were on the wrestling team together. So all these people that I interacted with or that I was speaking to in the work, I knew on a personal level, the so it became really interesting and political for me to write poetry towards an issue that I really didn't have the words to express, but the poetry I was asked to express.

Dr. Obermark 3:32 I'm really interested in sort of like what you said about audience.

Dr. Obermark 3:37 Obviously audience comes up a lot when you're studying rhetoric, and you see poetry is like kind of allowing your way to connect with some audiences that you weren't connecting to otherwise, and sometimes you said that you said times you felt like what like your words were too angry to reach certain audiences

absolutely because I came from a place of. I would do poetry from a place of anger, I was, you know, confused I was. I mean everything, a young person would be when faced with opposition or racism or anything like that, you know, they want to yell, and they want to do something to fight back. SO i would fight back in my words and, but I found that that version of fighting wasn't conducive. It wasn't doing anything. They make me look like this angry man who was in the top of the mountain. When no one could hear what I was saying on the ground.

So does that connect with like in the st louis post dispatch article about code, he talked about the talk about poetry is healing, kind of a post Ferguson era Could you talk to you. Does that connect with kind of your conceptions of her and I know that you have an interest in writing and healing and that sort of thing to do,

does the does the writing and healing for me takes part in because poetry is a, as I said earlier, it's about the self right, which you access about. So you write about what it is. And then you find a way to read poetry or share poetry that people can appreciate you know so I would write a version for myself.

Jason Vasser 5:08 And they concoct a version that I think my readership will be able to digest. And then that way, I'm able to have people understand what I'm saying, you know, and sometimes it's unfair, like I'm in, I'm in the process now.

Jason Vasser 5:25 I don't want to be a black writer. I want to be a writer. And so a lot of the stuff I've been doing my early, writing career was I was writing as a black writer, you could tell right I was writing as a black writer. But, you know, even in that the personal becomes political because now you exercise a whole group of people who would want to listen to your work or read your work, but you leave them outside because they're not that I had that experience. So I'm trying to again concoct versions of my work where my readership can appreciate it on both sides. you know, people in the hood can read it and get something from a people in the suburbs can read it and appreciate it. And, you know, it becomes a living art versus something that only lives in a certain sphere.

Dr. Obermark 6:16 That seems so hard like this notion of getting away and it's probably something you're just worrying about so maybe this question is like too difficult, but what does it mean I guess too.

Dr. Obermark 6:25 Or if you could tell us more about the idea of moving from a black writer to just be seen as a writer,


and why that's something you because it seemed to me when I think about Ferguson, it's like, I want like like identity so central so I want I want race to be part of the discussion for instance, but I don't know I'm speaking from like a white female subject position which is different obviously different than yours, so I don't know about this notion of moving from being a black writer to being a writer, it seems to have something to do with readership and audience for sure. It has a lot to do with readership, but it also has to do with the history because there was a time when it was illegal for black people to read and write. And so now that we can read and write. We're using our voices to speak towards issues that we've had to deal with the so long. And it's not even a situation of even slavery or, you know, the bus boycotts I'm in a generation, I was born in 78, but I was still calling nigga, you know I was still up against certain monsters that I had to deal with, with the bed at night. So I'm not even talking from the perspective of. I never picked cotton before my grandmother maybe pick it but it was ever forced to pick cotton as my grandmother had, you know, but I know what that feels like, or I was never told to sit at the back of the bus, but I know what it's like to take public transportation and hear the conversations of people who are just so they don't really understand what they're saying, you know, they like to have these conversations, and it's almost as if they're the Klan talking about these people, you know, so it's interesting because I don't want my audience to to read my work and say, Well, this is a black writer and he's only speaking from a black experience.

Jason Vasser 8:07 You know, slavery was an American experience. And so I had to write from a perspective that everyone can appreciate versus a select few. And that's the challenge James Baldwin had to move to Paris to become a writer in america he was a black writer, you know, so I had to know it's hard but it's almost that it becomes more political to be just a writer because now, even though I'm, I'm African, you know, so of course my work is gonna reflect what I am. But at the same time that isn't all that I am you know my experience is someone of a different you know ethnicity can share some same experiences. And so I want to write scores with that is how can we get past the notion of difference, and get to the notion of a shared experience. And that's the challenge for me as a writer.

Dr. Obermark 9:00 You and I can open this up everybody please feel like you can ask, I wanted to throw out a few examples of questions but jump in.

Do you feel like you're writing toward intersectionality or trying to like, trying to bring that in. Do you publish both versions of your poems or like as a metaphorical.

It just really depends on the magazine, you know there's a magazine, out of Texas callaloo, which is basically publishes African American authors. And so that's an audience for something that would be, you know, more independent. No rather if I write for the .....in Carbondale, I want that to be more something you know where the readership is broad. So really depends on what I'm writing for. one of my professors in the MFA program what he had me do, is write a black version, or write a regular version. And that way I still have both versions to share, while at the same time, I can do things with both independently for different audiences.

Unknown 10:05 I especially it comes up like speaking different languages, and I mean, although hers is Spanish I would say that I couldn't understand necessarily everything you have to say but that, I think, personally I would, I don't know I would, I'm just trying to figure out because as a reader. I think I would rather hear your authentic voice, rather than what you were trying to say for me, but I mean I can I totally understand what you're doing, and respect that I mean I'm hopefully a writer at some point too but I just think it's really it's a complicated existence.

Jason Vasser 10:40 It is and that's the line. Because we read it I do want you to get that experience, but I don't want to beat over the head with no be no Viva La revolution didn't have to be that heavy for it to be a powerful piece of poetry or piece of writing

it seems like you kind of, you made this mention of sort of how you don't you don't want people say well this is I'm not going to read this black writer because I'm not black it's not my experience that kind of reminds me of we had a discussion the other day, looking at those magazine covers briefly from Ferguson, and how like sometimes a bit like I like when I like when clearly people want to bring race into discussion, about Ferguson because it is an event about race but then sometimes it can become like really localized where the rest of the nation could say, I washed my hands of it because this we're not Ferguson. So there's this like line to walk of somehow addressing these issues of identity and race and difference, but also understanding that these problems are not just one city or one person are absolutely have a resonating with,

I have a friend in Maryland and he and I talk quite often he would ask me he said know how far is Ferguson from St. Louis, and I say it's part of St. Louis it's one of the, municipalities and yada yada yada. But what I found interesting is the whole iheart Ferguson thing or Black Lives Matter versus all last matter thing that rhetoric is very interesting. It's very interesting if you will to pay attention because. Okay. When police shoot people, or when police do things they're doing it in the name of the state. The state does these things, the state, you know, crack down on drugs, or whatever, right. And so when the state kills a child, you know, even though he may be a big child, or maybe an angry child he's still a child. So when the state kills his person. Now all of a sudden we love Ferguson. When before we didn't have to say we love Ferguson. I have to question what they really mean. Are you loving the ferguson and kills people. Are you loving the ferguson before all this happened. It's a gray area, you know, and then you have the situation where black lives matter of course black life, Black Lives Matter, but we have this whole group of people who want to say, All lives matter, and we know our lives matter, but only becomes, you know, an issue when black bodies are being discarded. Is it they don't matter. So now you have two people say having the same conversation of ignorance, it's like, of course, our lives matter, but when it comes to us, we don't matter. So what do you do with that. Right. And so, and that's again the line a walk in my work is how to convey that in a way that isn't threatening. That's the challenge of a writer is how to convey that message, without being the angry black man in the room.

Jason Vasser 13:32 You know, I've always been the angry black man in the room and workshop in a poetry reading. I've always been, I've always had to speak for a whole group of people. And I'm just one person.

Jason Vasser 13:46 And in a sense and, I mean, that isnt fair, but I'm always looked at as the expert because this is who I am. And so think about how it would be if you were put on the spot, and had to speak for your generation, or your culture, or your ethnicity, you know, all the men who have on gray hoodies today you have to speak for all those gentlemen, regardless of what they may do or not do you have to speak for all those people that isnt fair to you.

Jason Vasser 14:13 But when writing becomes a mechanism for again political or personal or whatever. I have to wear the hoodie, I have to be the ones speaking for these people. If I want to or not

Dr. Obermark 14:29 resonates with a lot of the reading we just read, ..... the problem of speaking for others, which addresses some of the same issues that you're talking about having to be a spokesperson versus when you need to step back and listener and what even delineates a group in terms of who can speak through sort of some of the like, well, if training the anthropology is yes some of those kind of interesting problems that ethnography might face when they're writing about certain. You know populations and how they might represent them having to to question at some point, like your hand, I don't know, someone I follow someone's really posted something, saying,

I wanna hear your authentic voice and, and so I. But that's us, the people he's changing it for are not suggesting for people to do so I'm not gonna read that because I'm so, so, yeah.

Unknown 15:21 Are you are you afraid that maybe like, because I know when Ferguson was happening. It was, it was everywhere. Yeah, and national discussion was about Ferguson Police Brutality burner and so that it continued on. Are you are you afraid of that it's going to fade. And that we're just going to sort of not, you know, how we sort of people are into something when it happens, and then they sort of move on. If they don't worry about it anymore You say that Ferguson might fade away and you're gonna forget until another black gentleman's kill again.

Jason Vasser 16:02 Yes and no. I mean, I think.

Jason Vasser 16:05 I think it's gonna fade. I think people are gonna eventually stop talking about Ferguson, but then it'll be something else to talk about. And so it becomes a larger issue of what St Louis is doing, because people forget ferguson is st louis there's not like even, st Genevieve is near St. Louis. And so it's not like it's Nebraska, you know this is happening in our own town. And it's affecting our hometown. And so I think it might be a conversation where I think you should shift. I think the conversation should shift from what we've been talking about instead to what we can do to make change to make positive change to bring people together over something even if it's a beer, just bring people together. And then that way you know we can start to talk about other things, you know, we can start healing beyond Ferguson. Yes.

Do you think about these like more national movements I saw you speak at the black poets Speak event. Yes, I thought that was the st louis thing was actually a national thing.

Unknown 17:07 And of course like using your voice I obviously like I'm sure the audience here. You felt the responsibility to to speak to read your poetry. How do you feel about that actually it because it is a larger thing when I looked at their Tumblr it is, it's awesome. You know, they're doing that and cities around, so like how do you feel about that thing, because I think in a way it has shifted right I mean, yes.

Jason Vasser 17:30 I think it's a wonderful thing art changes lives, you know, I think it sounds quirky in the songs you know yada yada yada, but art changes lives and that ought to be one of the solutions. We need to have more artistic movements that speech was his issues because in those in those movements in those artistic spaces we become just people just St. Louis. And that's the beauty of it is that we can just be people and not worry about all this other stuff when we're doing art. We're engaged with one another doing something other than being burdened with the, the obvious

Jason Vasser 18:08 Right.

Unknown 18:11 So your question the message behind iheart Ferguson, yet. And I was also wondering about what, how do you question rhetorically the message behind healing for St. Louis.

Jason Vasser 18:25 Is that could be interpreted a lot different ways it could, you know, it just really depends on who's who's making the statement.

Jason Vasser 18:31 You know, it really just depends on who's making this statement, and it's difficult because we live in this area, you know, meaning before Ferguson happened before all this happened. It wasn't an issue, you know, we can go to court Go Go to the brew house and people will have a good time together, but now we have to pay attention to. Ferguson, we had to be, and we know we're in Ferguson. Now, we know we see the murals on the walls, we see everything that's happening in response to what's happening. And so I think it becomes an issue of who's saying this, who's saying that I saw a woman, when I would come home from class. Those women got a confederate flag or a pickup truck, and she also had an Ilove Ferguson tag on her car, you know, and so it's like, no, it really boils down to who's saying and what does that mean when they say that, you know,

Unknown 19:31 about St Louis kind of maybe, meaning. Let's stop talking about it. It could be worse.

It could be construed that way but again, people are really trying, as do see people trying to make change. And it, you know, and that's the good thing but it may, it may come off like that but they're trying to push it, but that's what they should do is push it, you know, let's do more, let's keep, even if this fake, let's just get together and smile and just forget about this for a while. Even if even for a moment, because when you do that. Eventually, the smiles become real. You know I met a guy at the brew house, who had never spoken to me before, before Ferguson, and I still went to brew house, you know, to have the umsl Jubilee. And so, I would go and have my little pint, and he would talk, he, he came over and said hey, you're a poet, I said yeah, he said. So what do you think about this ferguson so he said, Never mind, you know, never mind. Let's just let me buy your beer . And he had never spoken to me, you know, but now all of a sudden, he wants to buy me a beer. So we chopped it up for a good 35-45 minutes, and that was it.

Jason Vasser 20:44 And I haven't haven't seen them since at the brew House, but for that moment, it didn't matter.

Unknown 20:53 Our Questions or comments at all.

Sure, Like a personal routine.

Unknown 21:00 Or like writing. Later, how do you how do you approach that

I write a little bit every day. It's typically as a poem. I'm working on a short story now too, so I write a little bit on my short story. Then I write a poem. I take a break. Then I'll go back to write a little bit of the short story then a poem, and then I'm done. You know, then the next day I'll go back and edit it, and then I'll go and write something new. The next day, when I'm in a writer's block or do a frantic reading, you know, I'll pick up a magazine or look at the image on the internet. I'll go to like the art museum or any one of our beautiful museums or places in St. Louis, I write a lot when I see I pick up a book of photos like I have all these books at home At home have different photos from back in the day, you know, and I would look at it just don't do a photo, and just create a story based on that photo. So I'm always engaged with writing.

Cool. Yeah.

Unknown 21:55 I need to do that.

Unknown 21:58 I know that when I was here before you and I worked a little bit like for the government to create writing in the schools,

no, I was the coordinator for writers in the schools. The writers in the Schools program is all about MFA program and what it is it's an opportunity for MFA students to get teaching experience working with high school students. And I was fortunate enough to serve as coordinator for a year and a half.

Unknown 22:24 Do you think that as people who have sort of infiltrated this, the social construction of like knowledge here in the university setting. We should take that out to communities who don't have access. Absolutely.

Unknown 22:44 Absolutely.

Because there's the there's like the rhetorical sort of like, what are we trying to teach people or individuals that we're getting from here because it's obviously most. I mean, I mean if we only talk about like race. You know it's mostly like white like this is, if you want to, you know, if you want to be a better writer let me give you the Webster dictionary so that you can learn the language of old white men to succeed. And so, but doesn't that become problematic.

No, because we live in the US. And even though I speak English or teach English at home I speak a different version of english, because I'm an African person. And so, I have, you know, I have to stay true to that language if you, if your family's from Germany, by all means speak German as much as you can, because once you forget the language, you forget part of yourself, but you also have to live in this country, and succeed in this country and you had to speak the king's English. My father would always tell me you know you have to learn how to speak the king's English. And what that means is you have to go on an interview and sound like they sound. You can't sound like you're talking to, when your homeboys on the block or you can't. You can speak your mind, or Swahili, you have to speak their language. And in that respect, you become one of them. So I teach my students every day we have the Word of the Day of the day, we do a vocabulary word we use it in the sentence that you know like, the first word we learned was didactic because it's, you know, learning, no it's designed to learn to teach or learn something, you know from the from the writing. And so I said, This is what you're going to be doing last semester didactic writing, you know, and so every day they have a different word and they like it now because they're using the sentences and speaking to one another, and the use of these words and I tell them. The reason you use these words is because they use these words, they being the people who have the jobs that you want. They use these words. So you use these words. Does that make sense.

Unknown 24:52 Oh, yeah. Okay, so my brother teaches fourth grade.

Unknown 24:56 And that time is like really crucial for reading and writing. So what are some of the challenges that you see your students face, and what are ways that teachers who work with kids any age can work on those challenges so they don't have quite such a hard transition from grade school to college,


Jason Vasser 25:18 Reading is by far the best thing you can teach a student to do. And because once they learn how to read they become interested in reading and they think that fine authors that they like. And then they have stuff to add to the conversation. You know it'll be so cool. My nephew is eight, but it will be so interesting, and I know he's into video games and yada yada. But if he would sit amongst his friends and talk about Dr Seuss, I would be so impressed because you're analyzing what you're reading, and that's what people want you to do in college and beyond is analyze what you read and what you interpret the world. Don't just look at the word interpret the word. And so I think what your brother should do is really focus on reading my students don't read. If I say reading, you know, sometimes the articles are like a page long, and they don't read it. Yeah, you know I have to bring in something that's interesting for them to read for them to read it.

Jason Vasser 26:09 That's not in the textbook. You know, but I just say that to say, you know, reading is by far the best thing you can get.

Yeah, it seems like by the time they get to college sometimes they're just so they've been beaten down a little bit by texts that they just couldn't access for various reasons you know like that. Yeah, it just felt inaccessible to them, I don't know, you just read so many stories about people who hate reading and they really hate writing, who say I hate greed. Yeah, you read it every day of your life it's literally like you go online and look of articles right like why are you talking even paper so how do we find ways to like integrate, like you are reading and it's hard because writing is even I find even worse when students are so terrified they are because they only experienced this version of writing that's been really really corrective especially students that might be speaking African American vernacular English or might not be might be an ESL student. These people have only experienced the deep deep red, red pen treatment when they're writing and there's a lot of fear, which I totally get that I feel really great about writing. I hated reading. When I was a child, because I was reading things I didn't, that didn't interest me.

Jason Vasser 27:13 But when I, when someone gave me something that like that teacher gave me langston huges I got it. Yeah, I kept, I kept at it, you know, and so sometimes it's a matter of having a child do something to read even if they don't want to read, so they can figure out what they do, like, then once they figure that part out, then you can just stay in that genre. You know, try and it's a hard area from the rural area so like, there are a lot of correlation between urban schools and household poverty stricken I don't have access to books.

What I would do is I would have the students write their own stories to have the read those like have them make like a chapbook, even if they stapled them together, and then have students read those stories, and then they can even workshop or kind of hear the voice of the author in the classroom, and they can have a dialogue about it. And if they do that type of thing, they'll be more interested because it's still work, versus somebody else.

Dr. Obermark 28:11 Jason will give you the last word here I think you touched on so many of the things that have come up in this class already Is there anything else you want to tell us about your teaching your poetry your civic engagement anything else we need to know.

Sure. And I hope I filtered all your questions, and if you have more you can email me, and I can give you my email address at the end of this but, um, no one I think no one becomes civically engaged because they want to be. I think they become civically engaged because there is no other choice. Um, they see a need and they meet that need. And it takes a certain type of person to want to do that. And I want to do that, you know, I've always been involved on campus and otherwise but there's something about the city, I love St. Louis. I love St. Louis. And what breaks my heart is the reality that sT. Louis was so far to go. You know, and so for me is fulfilling to do civically engaged activities like I sit on the board at the poetry center. I'm surrounded by people who are who are white men and women who are have taught English for thousands of years they're old people, but they're lovely people, and they're trying to reach out and trying to connect the trying to, they're trying to do something with the time that have left to connect their community. And then brought me in to help do that. And so I said you know whatever you need me to do. That's what will happen, because I do see the passion in their faces as you could probably see the passion in my face. In regards to giving back to our community. Right.

Jason Vasser 29:47 I don't know what else I can say my teaching. I just do I teach the way I want to be taught.

Jason Vasser 29:52 I teach the way that I take bits and pieces of professors I've admire like Professor Obermark, and people in my MFA program, I use the skills that they use in my teaching because it's something clicked in me when I do certain things.

Jason Vasser 30:08 Right, so pay attention to your teachers if you want to be in education, pay attention to your teachers and pick up things that they do that you may want to use. What else in I writing, again it's it's based on my own life, not just my life, but the lives I see the things I see community in the world, I just write about those things. And the challenge again for me is to make them, you know readable and digestible for people who don't have that experience.

Dr. Obermark 30:38 Thank you.