Revisiting the Rust Belt in Words and Pictures With Jay Halsey

Jay Halsey

To read Jay Halsey’s Barely Half in an Awkward Line is to be immersed in its author’s world and the places and people at their heart — sometimes literally. This book blends terse poetry, haunting prose, and mysterious images, all of which combine to bring the reader into the author’s history and the places closest to them. I spoke with Halsey about the book’s genesis and its new edition — as well as what the deal was with the masked figures that factor prominently into the book’s second half.

This is the second edition of Barely Half in an Awkward Line — how did this new edition come about? And how — if at all — does it differ from the first edition? 

The press that published the first edition of Barely Half went under a few months after it was released in 2022, so I approached Agape Editions to see if they’d be interested in putting out a second edition. They ended up publishing it under their imprint, Haunted Doll House, which was a serendipitous fit for Barely Half because what they’re doing is a bit more…to the dark heart of human nature. I’m grateful they took it on because I didn’t want my first collection to be kicked to the curb with the press going defunct. No author wants that, right? 

I wrote four new pieces and added several more photographs specifically for the second edition. The layout and cover design are also a fresh update. I’m happy as hell with how it turned out! I loved how the first edition looked, but the second edition feels cleaner and tighter to me. I feel super lucky for the opportunity to “save” the collection from being buried into oblivion. Agape Editions has been immensely supportive in its release. They went the extra mile to ensure everything I wanted was met. I couldn’t be more gracious to be part of their gorgeous catalog. 

Throughout this collection, there’s a juxtaposition of nature and humanity’s effects on it, notably in “Predator and Prey.” What’s drawn you to these subjects?

This is the first time I’ve been asked about that. Thanks! 

I was born and raised around Dayton, Ohio, which is an old General Motors town. All the tropes of the rustbelt: gritty urbanscapes, lackluster suburbs, blue-collar sacrifice, chemical addiction, etc. Those aesthetics live deep in my bones. I specifically had Dayton, and the white tail deer populating that region of the country, in mind when I wrote “Predator and Prey.” I’ve been fascinated with the behavior of the deer that lived in the metro parks of Dayton since I was a child, so it just seemed natural to compare their behavior to human behavior in that piece. 

The flipside to living in Dayton was cross-country travels with my then-stepdad on his motorcycle in the summers of my second and third grades. I got to experience the expansive beauty of the U.S.—the changing landscapes and all the wildlife—at a young age in a very specific way. 

Then, when I moved to the Front Range of Colorado in the 00’s, I spent a lot of time on the Eastern Plains to photograph the desolate landscapes. I fell in love with the sort of wild and cruel beauty out there that no one really seemed to talk about like they do of the mountains. I eventually watched that beauty erode into the big payoffs of the oil fracking industry. Ghost towns became storage areas, and once blank horizons filled with the shapes and noises of fracking. It broke my heart. 

Those dualities between human and animal, concrete and open spaces, is expressed in a lot of the verse and prose in Barely Half because that’s how I make sense of the world. 

And, more broadly, what factors lead to you using a specific place in your writing?

I’d say the biggest factor is just how certain places make me feel deeply. 

From the claustrophobic dwellings of apartment living; to the hard winds of the Plains; to the domineering walls of the Rocky Mountains; to the brutal heat of Nevada, lies so many romanticisms that have buried themselves into my core. It’s a combination of feelings that are hard to explain in conversation, but they all show up in my writing and photos because it’s what I hold near to my heart. 

To write about them, or shoot photos, sometimes feels more like an obligation than a choice. I’m fine with that, too, because it’s just what I know and what always draws me closer to myself. 

Barely Half in an Awkward Line incorporates both your writing and your photography. Have you always seen the two as being connected to one another?

Until I put together Barely Half, I never incorporated my photography with my writing in the same space. But I do think, for me, the two mediums need to be connected. 

Like, shooting photos on the Eastern Plains; tasting the dust; challenging a desolation that seems boundless, is something I can’t capture in images alone. So, writing those sensations in verse or prose completes the overall feeling I want to convey. That’s what I attempted in this collection. 

And the same goes for urban environments. I live in a very blue-collar area of Denver—like Dayton—and even though the aesthetics are vastly different than the Plains, the feeling is a similar hardness and loneliness. There’s no escaping the toxic air coming off oil refineries near my neighborhood. I pass a fenced-off vacant shopping plaza that’s full of asbestos every workday. Things like that. The area possesses its own kind of romantic vibe to me, and I’ve captured that vibe in both words and photos just like any place else I’ve lived and explored.  

What I shoot and write possess such similar emotions, and I don’t know how the two endeavors could exist separately.

What was your process like in terms of compiling and ordering the work featured in this book?

My partner, Hillary Leftwich, and I laid all the printed written pieces on our workroom floor, read them one by one, then organized those pieces in a way where one piece could sort of bleed into the next piece according to subject matter. The title of Barely Half in an Awkward Line actually comes from a line in the opening poem of the collection. Organizing the writing was the easy part. 

Then I spent several days, on and off, picking and editing photos to match the written pieces. For some of the pieces, I know I looked at a hundred or so photos to find just one or two that worked. I combed over literally thousands of shots when all was said and done. So tedious! That was the most difficult part of the process for me. And sometimes, the “best” photos weren’t necessarily the right photos to go along with the words. Which was fine, I just had to be cool with using shots that felt better with the pieces than they looked on their own.

Near the end of the book, there are a few very striking images of people wearing different kinds of masks. Are these part of a series, or is that more of a recurring motif for you?

The pig and gas masks in the Barely Half collection were part of two separate series I did from 2014 through 2016. Both series began as self-portrait projects for online photography communities I was involved with at the time. And both series evolved to incorporating friends and acquaintances to pose for me in locations I love. There’s also one shot I did with Hillary, in a fox mask at our home, and another shot I did of my friend in a black theatre mask, which was part of a projector series I did with her at her home.  

Like trying to capture nature in a lot of written pieces, there’s something about humans wearing masks that is inherently instinctual to the psyche. All those shots were purely experimental in expressing the symbolic masks we wear as humans, to hide and/or express our inner nature, which will always be a recurring motif I’ll strive toward in my photography and words.

Memory plays a big role in a lot of the pieces collected here, especially in “Three Storms.” When you’re exploring your past, are these memories usually close at hand or does the process take longer?

“Three Storms” began as a several-part phone text from my older sister on my 40th birthday in 2018. She related what she remembered of my birth during the Blizzard of 1978, and the months after when I had to stay in the hospital. So I tried to write that piece from her 4-year-old perspective, mixed with my own research about the blizzard that hammered much of the Midwest; specifically Dayton in that piece. Most of that piece was written from my sister’s memories.

That said, memories are the biggest factor in all my writing right now. They are what shape me and inform my perspectives. I’m not a skilled fiction writer, so saying my memories are close is an understatement. They’re all I have to write from. How I sift through them is everything in trying to become a more honest person. Mistakes others made, and mistakes I made, and how I write about those mistakes, is a reckoning to evolve and become more aware of myself and my environment at large, and to try and remain humble without sinking completely. 

Relying on my memories to create is the process for me, and it does take longer the older I get and the more I write. There are pieces in Barely Half that go back to 2007, and it’s obvious there wasn’t as much consideration as I have now when I wrote those words. And I’m okay with showing that growth.


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