Justin Wetch Talks Technology, Art, and Understanding

Justin Wetch is an artist, poet, photographer, and self-proclaimed “messy-haired fool” who first published his work as a freshman at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

His collection of poetry, Bending the Universe provides commentary on the modern era accompanied by breathtakingly detailed illustrations from artist Malachi Paulsen—a recipe for an international bestseller.

Wetch’s favorite poets span a wide array of time and place, from canonical figures like T.S. Eliot and Maya Angelou to rising poets like Hope Wabuke and Ocean Vuong. In his salad days, Wetch discovered the poetry of Maya Angelou through English classes and connected “instantly with the emotionality and clarity of her writing,” as he puts it. He found Angelou’s work simultaneously inspiring yet expressive of deep emotional pain.

He later discovered Ugandan American poet Hope Wabuke through her article in The Guardian, Chris Abani: ‘The middle-class view of Africa is a problem.’” “After that, I learned that she wrote poetry, so naturally I had to check it out,” says Wetch. “I found her use of imagery to be in a class of its own, and it is impossible not to visualize what she writes.”

Wabuke’s poem “In This Body, You’re Disappearing” led Wetch to his discovery of Ocean Vuong. “. . . I started watching some videos on YouTube where he was talking about his work and was impressed by his eloquence,” says Wetch. “There is a quote from his book Night Sky with Exit Wounds that is one of my all-time favorites—‘I didn’t know the cost of entering a song was to lose your way back.’”

Of course, Wetch held onto his early English class inspirations like T.S. Eliot. “[I] particularly loved his poem “The Wasteland,” which I allude to in my poem “Midnight.” Both authors find twisted cruelty at the horizon of a new beginning—Eliot with April’s impending spring, Wetch with midnight’s impending dawn. But his inspiration doesn’t end with Eliot, as Wetch’s affinity for strong imagery and emotional clarity come through throughout his collection.

Bending the Universe is split into five sections: society, love, life, personal, and nature, a decision Wetch made to keep from being pigeon-holed into writing about a single topic. “I used those sections as a way to diversify my subject matter,” he explains. “They represent the fundamentals of the human experience that I wanted to write about.”

Each of the sections is paired with an illustration that helps to build a larger narrative. “One thing not a lot of people notice is that all of the illustrations are smaller perspectives found within the first illustration,” he says. “Malachi’s illustrations succinctly capture the emotional core of each section in a visual medium as well as the interconnectedness of each section with the greater human experience.”

In the age of technology, there’s no excluding technology from the human experience. Though Wetch critiqued technology’s role in today’s society, he does believe technology has its upsides.

“In stark contrast to my views as a teenager when I was writing Bending The Universe, I believe that technology greatly fosters human connection,” he says. “Social media has presented an opportunity for many marginalized individuals and communities to find solidarity and validation in a way that was previously impossible.”

Wetch believes that technology has actually leveled the playing field. “I think that social media has served to democratize art as a whole, empowering individual creators to succeed without needing to conform to the narrow-minded criteria of gate-keepers,” he says. “. . . technology and social media, in particular, are some of the best tools we have to fight against social stratification and ignorance.”

As with his feelings about technology, his feelings toward his own work have changed over time. “My poems strive to represent truthfully my perspective at the current time in my life. As such, naturally, as I develop and change as a person, my perspective changes as well,” he explains. “I believe that artistic expression should be an unedited snapshot of the present, not something that you seek to censor and make future-proof, so to speak.”

“I don’t believe there should be a prescription for the way poetry should be written,” says Wetch. “I think poets should just strive to express themselves honestly and fully—”

Wetch keeps the same anything-goes policy for his writing process. “I feel that different mechanisms of writing influence, even to an infinitesimal degree, the way we write. As such, I try to diversify as much as possible in the process of creating a body of work,” he says.

Wetch’s art has often been an outlet for expression and understanding. “It may sound overly lofty or sophomoric, but creating things in any medium just helps me find a greater sense of peace with myself,” he explains.

“I have often struggled with understanding a lot of things that other people seem to understand innately—although I don’t like to talk about it or be labeled by it, I am a person with high-functioning autism, and that doesn’t make understanding the world in which I live any easier, and being bipolar just adds another layer of confusion to everything.”

Simply put, Wetch creates because it brings him joy. “Art is an oasis of solace that allows me to just exist freely and somehow be understood by others through it, be it 3D art or photography or music or poetry.”

And he doesn’t let reviews stand in the way of his creativity. While Wetch admits there is a dose of vitriol in reviews, he finds there is much to be gleaned from them as well. “When people offer their honest and respectful perspective on your work, it is an invaluable gift to help you improve or at least understand how people feel,” he says.

“There is usually at least a kernel of truth to every honest and respectful critique, and there have been several times when seeking to understand these kernels of truth have helped me improve my perspective on things.”