Will Bortz

At 11 Will made everyone read his stories that were a 'spin-off' of Captain Underpants. Today, he writes poetry that he feels weird about. 


Take us back to you as a kid.

I was a pretty annoying kid, honestly. I loved sports (still do) and played them constantly. I started skateboarding when I was about 12 years-old and didn’t stop for a long time. I also started writing when I was 11. I began by creating a sort of spin-off of my favorite books at the time, ‘Captain Underpants’. I made everyone read them and kept them for years. I was just really that kid that thought I was the best at everything. I’ve been humbled too many times to count since then thankfully. I also grew up in foster care and spent a little bit of that time homeless. I was in and out of the foster care system a lot until I aged out at 18 and I learned a lot during that time. I met a lot of incredible people that have shaped me into the person that I am today. It is also during that time that I developed a sense of humor because up until then life was a very black and white thing that wasn’t meant to be joked about. 

Who did you want to be?

I wanted to be so many things. The first person I ever wanted to be was Al Roker. I really wanted to be a weatherman, I guess. As I aged I wanted to be either a pro-skater or a football/basketball player. Then I wanted to be a rockstar. The typical transformation.

"I've always had the desire to do something with writing but never the drive, discipline, or motivation."

What was last Monday like for you?

It's been a really busy year. This is definitely the busiest I've been in my life and it has felt great doing things that I love and moving forward with writing. Last Monday I was finishing up a manuscript and a few poems for a couple contests I was entering. I work late on Monday's so I (try to) dedicate the entire morning to whatever is on my checklist for the day. Typically I'll go to Horizon Line before I work and knock some stuff out.

Walk us through the days leading up to working at Horizon Line Coffee?

I had met Brad, and later Nam, around this time last time, actually. My wife, Chelsie, and I spent New Year's Eve at their house playing board games and listening to music. At the time, I was working at Wells Fargo and had reached a weird spot where I was good friends with Brad and Nam but also wanted to work at Horizon Line, but did not want to use that friendship to get a job. Once they announced they were accepting applications I submitted mine. I had worked in coffee for 5-6 years before then and felt pretty confident, but I remember vividly feeling extremely underqualified walking out of the shop after my interview. I was moved by the amount of care and passion they poured into their work. Once hired, we, the crew, spiffed up the shop, got super close, spent months being half-open, and just delighted in what Brad and Nam were bringing to Des Moines. 

What keeps you busy?

For a number of years, I have always felt this sort of pull to always be working on something - writing or otherwise. For the past two years or so I try and dedicate most if not all of my free time to writing, marketing, etc. Other than that, my wife and I love adventuring, exploring parts of Des Moines we haven’t been to yet, and hanging out at the shop with the HLC fam. 

Walk us through the days leading up to you being more active in poetry.

Oh, man. I remember mainly feeling guilt for never putting myself out there more. I've always had the desire to do something with writing but never the drive, discipline, or motivation. The days leading up to it were just feeling a lot guilt, honestly, and pretty sorry for myself that I wasn't where I wanted to be. Eventually and thankfully that broke and I decided I either needed to but the time, work, and dedication in or move on. It's been about eight months since that day and it's been incredible. Way better than coasting and relying on inspiration. I feel like having this desire to create art is almost a burden because when you are you wish you were better and when you're not you feel guilty. 

Describe your poetry.

I have always felt weird about my poetry. I think the idea behind poetry is that it is mostly and almost always sad, brooding, etc. It's odd. I have a lot of rules for myself regarding my writing and poetry. I have a long list of words that I refuse to use because of my own attachment and perception of those words, and not at all relating to how they have been used by other people or people groups. I have super high standards for myself like every artist does for their work. I see my writing as hopeful and challenging. I have seen a ton of dark and I was met with a lot of light, so I can't separate the two and I don't in my writing. At the same time, it takes a degree of courage to really take a step in looking at yourself and wanting more for yourself/life/whatever. I want to challenge people to believe that they have more control than they believe, they are stronger than they believe, and they are loved more than they believe.

How do you stay focused?

Really, I don’t. If anything, my focus comes from the guilt of being so so incredibly unfocused. I have a lot of goals with my writing, and if there is anything I have gained from a childhood spent idolizing athletes it’s that we see them on the field/court just blowing our minds with their talent, but we don’t see them in the off-season putting in that work to get better at what they do. I think about that a lot when I envision where I want writing to take me. Often times if I am feeling lazy, I will talk myself into writing, even if it is just word-vomit. I also try to read a lot and be involved in my community. Community is invaluable. Chelsie is also incredibly supportive and pushes me to work when I don’t want to but need to.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

Myself. Seriously. Whether it is doubt that I can make it as a writer, or even that I even write well. It is almost always myself that tells me that before anyone else. There was a period of about 2 years where I didn’t write much at all because I had been so discouraged by myself. Still dealing with the ramifications of that -  the lost time and whatnot. 

How did you overcome it?

Chelsie was a huge part of getting over that slump. Also, some of my dear friends that are always encouraging and loving on me. Ultimately, it just took realizing that standing still was becoming more painful than taking that first uncomfortable step. 

What’s been one of your favorite pieces of work recently and why?

The pieces I always end up liking of mine are always the most strange. The best piece of writing advice I have ever received was to always "write what scares you." They are the kind of pieces that aren't really tapped into any sort of conscious inspiration or influence—it is just raw and free of whatever themes or boxes I am keeping in writing at that particular time. As it happens, only one is out there and was published by a magazine, which is super humbling, but they are definitely the kind of pieces I have to sit on for some time before shoveling them out into the world.

You get to redo something you’ve done. What would that be and why?

I really don’t want to sound cliche, but I don’t think I would really redo anything. I don’t think I would even redo those 2 years where I sat idle because I learned so much about myself in that time. Ultimately, taking that step back reminded me that I write for me before anyone else and that makes it authentic and allows me to start conversations that provoke genuine growth. That or I would have put more time into a solid basketball career. 26 is a little old for the draft, I think. 

Someone is starting their own thing. What would you say to them if they came to you for advice?

Keep it that way. There are so many outside influences -good or bad- that don’t intend to change the original idea but end up doing that. This world is never made better by copies of the same great thing, but by new, evolving and genuine ideas. Finding people who support you and your idea for what it is - is paramount. Our passions pour out the way that they do and most times it isn’t super easy to see where that is going to lead, but it’s important to trust them. Oh, and become an active member of your community. Meet people. Learn about people. Love people. With all that, listen more than you talk.

To anyone interested in poetry what would you like to tell them?

Write a lot, and read more than you write. Find other people who write and encourage them to write more. Share your writing in any capacity. And always always always always always be honest in your writing. Writing carries with it a responsibility to introduce and navigate larger conversations, of which some people need to have and to know that other people feel what they feel. That is why it is important to stay honest. 

Why Des Moines?

To be honest, I never intended on living in Iowa after I turned 21. Prior to moving to Des Moines in July of 2016, I lived in Ames, and before that, I grew up in or around Sioux City. I really never imagined I would move deeper into Iowa. But that was just me thinking something more was on the other side of these state lines. I ended up in Ames because Chelsie lived there and I moved to Des Moines because Chelsie got a job here at CKF right out of college. I haven’t been involved in such a growing, understanding, and loving community before coming to Des Moines. It has taught me the importance of relationships and growing. Beyond happy to have ended up in Des Moines. 

What’s one new thing that has caught your eye?

The Art Terrarium, for sure. Not only because they provide Des Moines with the finest foliage, but primarily because of how they engage the community. I am always seeing them bring people together, providing events and services for people to learn from. I don’t know whether they are new or new-new, ya know? But how much I am pumped about them still feels new. Such rad people. Chelsie and I have many of their plants and goods in our house. 

You can grant Des Moines one wish. What’s that wish?

That it could be moved 150 miles south because snow/ice/freezing temperatures are horrible. That or bring in a La Juanitas from Sioux City because they have the best burrito in the known universe.

For someone new to DSM where do you suggest they go?

As I mentioned before - Art Terrarium. Horizon Line (of course), Reeds Hollow (best food in Des Moines), find a sweet event at The Social Club and hit up Fontenelle Supply Co. for a game of pool and some excellent products. 

The most underrated thing in DSM is ________. Why?

Ooooo. That’s tough. I hesitate to say a place because so many people come into Horizon Line from out of state and are blown away by Des Moines. I would say the most underrated thing about DSM is the people, their passion, and their drive. 

What are you most proud of and why?

I think the thing I am the proudest of is learning to be content in wherever I am in life. A lot of my life growing up was being pushed here or there and being squeezed out of places I didn’t want to leave. It took me a long time to get to a point where I was content with being where I was because there was clearly a purpose for me being there. Through that, I’ve accomplished everything I have today: writing books, marrying my wife, connecting with people, etc. So truly I cannot say I am proud of all the things I have accomplished without first acknowledging that lesson and what I learned from it. Sure, I don’t always think that way, but I that’s my baseline. I’m always being humbled by where I’ve been and focusing less on why I was there and more on where I have grown. Without that understanding, I wouldn’t have accomplished anything.

It’s been six months, what do you hope to have accomplished?

I'm putting out a poetry book in April and I would love to get it picked up by a publisher. I would love to dive more into the community, for sure. I went to a reading at Drake last month and have met a lot of awesome local folks involved in different areas of writing and poetry. I would love to do more readings and continue to find ways to connect with people. I have super lofty goals and I don't like the idea of not working towards them — no matter how lofty they are. Most importantly, I would love to destroy Brad in a latte-art throwdown. 

One thing that matters most to you is what?

I am cheating because it is hard to pick one. Faith, my wife, my homies.

Photo credit: Greg Rudolph

Derek Jensen