Published author reflects on how Lafayette influenced his work, success


LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Lafayette native Jacob Sunderlin recently published his first book and will be attending a book signing at Main Street Books later this month.

In a conversation with the Journal & Courier, Sunderlin described her past, present and future with her poetic works, and how the Greater Lafayette area has influenced them.

Besides writing, what do you do for a living?

“I teach AP Language and Composition and AP Seminar at the Signature School in Evansville, IN, which is a somewhat nationally competitively ranked public charter school,” Sunderlin said. “My students are in second grade.”

How did you start writing poetry?

“I started writing poems when I was a teenager at Lafayette Jeff,” Sunderlin said. “My teacher Julie Sumrall introduced me to a lot of great poems and writers back then. account, involves a lot of expensive things. I started writing poems because you really only need a library card and a notebook, which I had.

“So starting in high school, I always doodled things that were mostly terrible but gradually got more serious over the years. I eventually studied writing at Purdue graduate school and at University of Georgia and started publishing my poems in literary magazines.”

What is your first book, “The We in the Back of the House”, about and how did Lafayette influence it?

“The book is a collection of thematic poems about work,” Sunderlin said. “Many of the poems in this book spring from the poetry of language encountered in low-wage work. The ‘back of the house’ in the title refers to the restaurant kitchen, which has its own language and counterculture. I had many of these experiences in Lafayette, Indianapolis and Chicago over the years, so several Lafayette locations appear throughout the book.”

Sunderlin went on to explain how a working-class Lafayette identity influenced his life, particularly in relation to the written works of other authors.

“…in a more abstract way, this question also reminds me of writer JJ Sullivan’s great essay on Axl Rose, perhaps the most famous person born and raised in the city. Izzy Stradlin of Guns ‘n Roses is quoted there as saying something like “Having nothing to do influenced everything we did”.

“There’s a grandiosity of feeling and imagination that the boredom of central Indiana, perhaps, fosters. At the same time, though, this perception that you’re culturally ‘nowhere’ has made show up even more the resources that Lafayette had when I was growing up valuable to me… So I feel like the local Lafayette culture during my teenage years was actually very conducive to poetry writing and music . I hope that’s still the case.”

What future work is currently underway?

“I’m working on a collection of poems written largely in Georgia during the Trump years,” Sunderlin said. “The poems repeatedly talk about that experience, but also about saxophonist John Coltrane on tour in Japan suffering from terminal liver cancer, which in the book ends up being much the same.”

The influence of Lafayette and Purdue on Sunderlin’s work

Sunderlin dove deeper into both the Greater Lafayette area and Purdue’s influence on his career, having earned his master’s degree in poetry at Purdue.

Sunderlin spoke about both the positives and negatives that happened during and after his time at Purdue.

“As a native of Lafayette, I can say that without the opportunity to study poetry as a graduate student at Purdue, I probably never would have been able to do many of the great things I have done in my life. “said Sunderlin. “…As a graduate student in English at Purdue, I had a phone call with a Nobel laureate and interviewed a writer who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. I met my wife in the graduate program in English…

“For a public high school student in Lafayette, suddenly rubbing shoulders with prestigious writers and world travelers seems to me the absolute pinnacle of what a public institution can offer.”

Sunderlin continued to reflect on his time at Purdue with what happened recently at the university’s English graduate program – a one-year moratorium on student admissions, due to a gradual loss of funding, in December last year.

After:Purdue UK head responds to announcement of graduate program halt

In David Reingold’s December 2021 statement regarding the moratorium, the dean referred to the English department’s budget overrun of $303,000, a claim that has been refuted by some, including Dorey Armstrong, head of the department of English. English, in an e-mail.

“A public university is not a business,” Sunderlin said. “Part of what makes the upcoming reading such a powerful, but also (a) melancholy event that I’m part of is that it brings together a former Purdue MFA graduate – me – with some of the latest MFA poets that Purdue will be able to graduate, since the dean of liberal arts at Purdue, David Reingold, in an act of supreme malevolence, essentially killed graduate English at Purdue.The university is in a worse place because of its myopic ignorance.

Information on Sunderlin’s upcoming book signings

Sunderlin’s book signing will take place at 7 p.m. on Oct. 15 at Main Street Books in downtown Lafayette. Sunderlin will read excerpts from her book “The We in the Back of the House,” a collection of thematic poems about work, and copies will be available for purchase and signing.

According to Sunderlin, two current Purdue MFA candidates in poetry, Kirby Knowlton and Logan Tuesday, will also read.

“I’m thrilled to be able to hear their work as well as share my own,” Sunderlin said. “I’m really excited that people can hold the book in their hands.”

Margaret Christopherson is a reporter for the Journal & Courier. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @MargaretJC2.


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