Artist Spotlight: Jacob Oet’s poetic priorities

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To describe Jacob Oet ’16 as creative would be an understatement. Dabbling in forms such as photography, film and playwriting, Oet’s pursuits are impressive; however, his main love has always been poetry. Oet is a talented poet who has published five chapbooks and won a slew of awards for his work.

Oet began writing recreationally when he was little as a form of entertainment. “I started taking my writing more seriously at the beginning of high school,” he said. “ I was figuring out who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, and poetry seemed to be the most efficient medium for me to express myself.”

While at Swarthmore, Oet has taken the basic poetry workshop, as well as a less formal workshop, an off-campus workshop with Daisy Fried and a variety of summer programs. Workshops vary with the personality of the instructor. In revision workshops, Oet said, “I feel like I’ve had really great instructors who were good at finding how a poem wanted to work and helped the poem get there.” This is an incredibly abstract process that has helped Oet tune his writing.

Outside of workshops, Oet attempts to refine his own writing craft by reading as much as he can. “My favorites are always changing,” he said, “but I always like poetry that’s a little rebellious without that being the piece’s purpose. The poem isn’t made for pushing boundaries, but it’s there.” By rebellious poetry, Oet means writing that doesn’t fall into current trends and makes its own rules about how someone is intended to read it. For example, Oet referenced “Dancing in Odessa,” a chapbook by Iliya Kaminsky, which he described as “lyrical with a strange sense of humor.” He explained that while this collection pushes the boundaries of convention, it primarily revels in and explores the strangeness of beauty. This quality is something that Oet pursues in his own work.

One of Oet’s greatest struggle as a poet is finding a balance. “You always need to read so that you’re fresh and you have an idea of what to reach for in quality standards,” he said, “but you don’t want that to retain your own voice too much.” Oet has also been juggling the dichotomy between his technical skills as a writer and his own wealth of experiences. He explained that it’s difficult to ensure that his technical skills don’t overtake his experience. Oet strives not only to improve his writing skills but to continue to grow as both a person and a poet.

Oet’s craft lies in his attention to detail. Each poem can take him anywhere from an effortless five minutes to a laborious week-long process. The average, he acknowledged, is somewhere in between. In each poem, Oet focuses on microscopic elements, such as the way syllables match up, patterns and diction. However, for Oet, there is a large emphasis on storytelling and the harmony between ideas, language and how they affect one another.

Poetry is an extremely reflective form of expression, which can provide a window into the state of the poet at the time of writing. As Oet has changed as a person, so has his poetry. Oet explained that, “I can see who I was through the kind of poems I was writing. At the end of high school, I was self-oriented and a lot of my poems were about change. As I’ve come to college and as I’ve become more grounded I’ve turned outward. My poetry is more deliberate and more open to not having an idea where the poem is going.”

As Oet’s poetry has become less introspective, it has become larger and more narrative in nature. “I guess I’ve kind of had a change in what I think poetry should do. I feel like it’s not most important to talk about yourself which is easy to do. It’s more interesting to me to talk about people and their relationship to one another.”

Oet seemed uncertain about the direct source of his inspiration. Oftentimes, ideas for poems are random and come from a variety of places. “Sometimes it’ll start with just a phrase or a short idea of something I think is interesting,” he said. For example, one of Oet’s poems is about Superman. “Superman is this guy who has never felt vulnerable before. What would it be like to put him in a position where he is vulnerable? Like a pet dies or something like that.”

Based on his interests in characters and relationships, Oet is currently working on a new manuscript. This is a collection of serial poems about an imaginary character, a porcupine. “The porcupine is this talking, kind of crazy guy and we go on adventures together,” Oet explained. This series came from a poem he wrote on a bus last spring break. Oet said, “I got out my phone to begin writing some quick poems. It was a good kind of serendipity. I wrote one poem about me taking a bath with a porcupine and wrote about twenty more on that trip.”

Through these adventures with a porcupine, Oet is able to explore the relationship between the pair and other characters around them. Through this concept, Oet said the character allows a certain sense of continuity which gives him the freedom to go exciting, crazy places and have the reader accept the stories’ strangeness.

Oet’s first chapbook, “Metamorphosis,” was published in 2012. It is a rich collection of poems exploring the inevitability of change. Oet seems unfazed by his apparent successes and explained that when he had a collection of poems that all had a similar theme, he decided to send them to various publishers. “It doesn’t seem that glamorous,” he said, “Most of the people who read me are people I know. I don’t have the experience of not knowing my readers, a real kind of experience of having some sort of fame.”

When asked if he would like to be a “career poet,” Oet shrugged and kind of chuckled answering, “Sure, if that’s a thing.” As a current English major, he is uncertain about what career path he will pursue in particular. “I can’t have enough time to write ever. I want to be surrounded by interesting people and have time to read and write.” For Oet, this could mean potentially pursuing an MFA and teaching college creative writing in the future. While finding time to continue his poetic pursuits can be a struggle, poetry is always Oet’s priority — and his passion.

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