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April 4, 2013

Books, Journals & More

A closer look: Lori Jakiela

jakielaBefore Lori Jakiela was a poet, memoirist and associate professor of English at Greensburg, she wanted to be Barbara Walters — the journalist who once anchored a major network’s evening news, not the one who presides over the television talk show “The View” today.

Then Studs Terkel, the Chicago writer famous for chronicling the lives of ordinary Americans, spoke at Gannon University in Erie, where Jakiela was studying journalism. His appearance, she says, was “a touchstone … the moment that changed me as a writer. He cared about people, the people I grew up with” in the Mon Valley. “Terkel was interested in the meter reader and the steelworkers and the waitresses — everybody I knew.”

As a college sophomore, Jakiela worked as a stringer for what is now the Erie Times-News, first on the sports pages, then handling a newspaper beat that may not exist anywhere else in the United States, before or since — “the love-story beat,” she calls it, writing about happy couples with a good story to tell. “I loved it,” she says. “I started writing poems off of the stories at the time.”

She is still doing that in her latest book of poems, “Spot the Terrorist!,” which  chronicles both her relationship with her father and with her other career as a flight attendant.

Poetry was her first love, and she has long written and studied the form. “I hope people feel something when they read them,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like, because a poem’s so compressed, you get more of an emotional punch.

“It’s not really a fashionable thing to say, but I always wanted to write poems that anyone could read, that people could put on their refrigerators. We learn early on that you have to approach poetry on your knees, that you have to decipher it. My poems are largely narrative, very similar, to me, to my voice in prose. That just means people think, ‘Oh, I can understand this.’ And that’s a good thing.

“Someone made a meme of one of my poems a little while ago,” she adds. “I said: ‘That’s it. That’s the new refrigerator.’”

After graduating from Gannon, a detour to public relations work at Penn State-Behrend brought her to Pitt. Friends in Penn State’s English department urged her to pursue graduate school, and Pitt accepted her into its Master of Fine Arts program with a teaching assistantship — the only way she’d consider attending. “I couldn’t see going back to school for poetry if I had to pay for it,” she says. “I couldn’t see explaining it to my family.” She completed her MFA in 1992.

Two years later, she began working as a flight attendant, and only quit the year after she took her job at Pitt-Greensburg in 2000. She even was tempted to return to flying in 2008, as a side job to teaching. By then, she was married, with a 7-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. She got dressed one morning to leave for her first flight, and her daughter awoke.

Jakiela recalls the moment: “She said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Nowhere.’”

She canceled the day’s flight, and hasn’t worked a flight since.


spot the terroristAs writing inspiration, however, flying is still central for Jakiela. Della, an older, more experienced flight attendant she knew, is the main character in the longest poem in “Spot the Terrorist!” and appears in Jakiela’s earlier memoir, “Miss New York Has Everything,” in slightly different form.

Della says things like: “It used to be flying was for the elite.” At the end of a long day of flying, when she and Della spot that night’s hotel, Jakiela tries to console Della by saying “I’ve stayed in worse.” Della replies, “Of course you have.” Jakiela labels her “The Queen of Sky.”

“Something happened every day, every day, that was funny or horrifying,” Jakiela says of her days aloft. “I always hope that I’m done with it, then something else will come up” — another memory of a strange flight.

It’s hardest to put her flight attendant times aside when former colleagues post on Facebook from Spain or New York City. Such postings make her think: “‘I could be in Paris now! That sounds pretty good.’

“I’m a permanent malcontent. I tried to be in the moment and to ‘be here now’. But I’m always thinking: ‘What if this?’ ‘What if that?’ Maybe that provides enough tension in my life, so maybe I can write from that.”

She has been plagued, or blessed, by unusual encounters with strangers for a long time, she says: “I started waiting tables when I was 12. When you have a job like that, people would tell you stories. My whole life has been spent with people coming up and telling me things. It’s wonderful but it produces a little guilt in me too, because I’ll think: ‘I have to write about that.’ The subject of your work is other people, and it’s their lives. It’s your life too.”

Flying is present in her upcoming memoir of her mother’s illness, “The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious.”

“The reason I write memoir in general is to work things out, to discover how this happened, to make sense of my life,” she says. “The Bridge” was harder to compose than “Miss New York,” Jakiela explains, because her mother was a tougher, more challenging individual than her dad — and because, unlike her first book, this memoir was about her adulthood. Kids, in life and in nonfiction, are allowed wrong turns, false starts and just “to be an idiot,” in Jakiela’s words; adults are not.

Memoirs also are scarier to publish than poems, she says. She recalls seeing her early poetry appear in small literary magazines: “I assumed nobody would read them and I could do what I want,” she says. Then “Miss New York” was slated to appear.

“A week before it came out I went fetal. I had this moment when I wanted to lie down in traffic and say, ‘What did I do?’”

She was consoled recently by a memoir panel discussion at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, in which she participated. When you write about your life, the panel concluded, “people are going to misunderstand you, people are going to be angry at you. It’s risky business. You have to find a way to understand yourself and figure yourself out.”

“Maybe it’s part of an ongoing grieving process too,” she says of “The Bridge,” “the desire to give it shape … to make something out of it that will be, maybe, beautiful.

“As a writer you want to connect to readers, that people will say, ‘Me too!’ I’ve written a novel and it’s terrible, so to some degree I’m an autobiographical writer. Perhaps it comes from being a journalist. What are the facts of my life? What does it say about me or about being human in general?”


Perhaps her feeling of being “a little lost and floaty,” as she describes her state of mind back in college, comes from being adopted. “For the adopted person, loss is love and love is loss,” she says. “I think I write about home and family because of that emotional thing. There’s part of being a flight attendant where you’re anonymous and floating around, and that was familiar to me.”

Adoption and her own parenthood are the subjects of her manuscript in progress, “Virtual Mother.” She also is working on an essay about Studs Terkel.

Looking back at her career, she recalls the MFA student readings she sat through, featuring too many poets reading in a drone-like voice.

“I don’t want to bore people,” she says. “And again, it’s not fashionable to say this — but a poem, you can just have it. It doesn’t take long to read. You can read it again and hear something else, and again and hear something else. It’s a good way to give people a fast experience. We’re all so busy. I don’t know if poetry can be practical — but maybe that’s the Studs Terkel part of me.”

—Marty Levine

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