JD Debris, class of 2017, is a poet, songwriter, recording artist, and Goldwater Fellow at New York University. While attending Salem State University, he released his debut album "Black Market Organs", won the individual slam at the Mass Poetry Fest, and published several poems in several magazines, including SSU’s Soundings East.
What are you currently working on?
I am completing a Master of Fine Arts degree at NYU. Right now, I am working on a book-length thesis advised by Yusef Komunyakaa and taking one course each in poetry and fiction. As part of my fellowship, I direct a community writing workshop at a residential hospital on Roosevelt Island and teach an undergraduate class called Intro to Poetry and Prose. At night, instead of sleeping, I make music. I am currently completing my second album, which is set to be released at the end of 2020.
How have you applied your experiences at SSU to your career?
Salem State has a stellar corps of creative writers whose footsteps I have tried to follow. Several have given me examples of how to transition from a blue-collar life to an artistic life. Salem State's creative writers, on the whole, are very down-to-earth. I have encountered too many writers in New York who are so mired in insular theory (learned at colleges much more expensive than Salem State) that they have entirely ceased to communicate with anyone besides people who have read the same theorists or already have the same viewpoints and lexicon. My SSU professors would call me out immediately (though gently) on any gnomic pretensions, pointless abstractions, and baseless rantings in my juvenilia (trust me, it contained plenty of all three), and I think that's been a saving grace in the long run.
What do you find most enjoyable about your work?
My professional goal is to write books, make records, play shows, and drone at a podium until I die. I'm blessed to be in my 20s and already (ever so precariously) living that life.
What personal qualities or abilities are important to being successful in your work?
Discipline is key. I'm lucky to have a bit of an athletic background, so I'm used to the routine of pushing yourself past your personal limits each day. A creative's life is mostly stoic: you must continue to work (and find ways to survive financially from that work) in the face of a generally indifferent universe. And in the rare cases that the universe responds, “you must hold your quiet center,” as Poet Ha Jin said.
How do you adapt and stay current on developments in your field?
I think one of the most important parts of evolving in a creative field is not to quarantine oneself to a specific school, movement, or aesthetic. New York is the home of wild variety, and I like to immerse myself in that. That said, I’m not interested in novelty for its own sake, so I don’t bother with gimmicky people and their work. Too much writing that becomes popular does so because of gimmickry and adherence to period style and consensus viewpoint. I like poised artists; I like stoics who don’t bother striking a stoic pose because they’re too busy working.
What were your favorite classes at SSU?
J.D. Scrimgeour's writing workshops, Jon Aske's linguistics courses, January Gill O'Neil's literary craft course, and Kevin Carey's special topics course which incorporated storytelling, performance, and video. Bill Coyle of the Writing Center also imparted a great deal of knowledge to me on the subjects of formal poetry (wildly undertaught, though relevant as always) and translation. Additionally, I enjoyed spending time at the SSU library. And though I didn't get to take one of her classes, MP Carver is a brilliant SSU writer.
What was your favorite thing about SSU?
There's a real openness and fluidity to SSU. When I was in the area, I'd duck into the music practice rooms and flesh out new songs on a piano, jump in a game of pickup hoops, or hit the weight room with a buddy. There's a great hangout culture, especially at Central Campus. People are not always in a rush, and I have fond memories of conversing with friends and strangers who became friends all over SSU. On the more academic side, I tell people I got a Harvard education at Salem State. The knowledge is there if you talk outside of class to professors whose work intrigues you. I found that many professors were willing to share supplementary reading lists and technical advice with interested students such as myself.
Why did you want to major in English?
I always read voraciously and wanted a degree in which I would have an excuse to continue reading like a fiend. I had no intentions of writing anything other than music and lyrics when I started at SSU, but the poetry and prose writing flowed naturally out of my voracious reading. (I believe this is the one and only way to write, reading to the point where the creativity can no longer be contained).
Truthfully, I would not have pursued writing poetry and prose if not for J.D. Scrimgeour. He was the one who saw some hint of promise in the bad Bolaño imitations I was doing for my in-class exercises freshman year. It was the fact that he took me in as a protege that made me stick with the English major and to not abandon the BA degree as a whole, which is easy enough to do when you're already making some money elsewhere and are only taking classes part-time, as was my situation. His mentorship kept me on point and, I think, kept me from making some regrettable decisions.