by Lauren K. Alleyne
The magic of A. Van Jordan’s work is its ability to position the reader both inside of and outside of the poem’s subject or character. This poetic trompe l’oeil is a result of Jordan’s masterful use of formal innovations that create and operate within a doubled space of the subjective/interior and external/contextual. An excellent example is his poem “From” which appears in his 2004 collection M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. The first few lines of the poem read thus:
from (→) prep. 1. Starting at (a particular place or time): As in, John was from Chicago, but he played guitar straight from the Delta; he wore a blue suit from Robert Hall’s; his hair smelled like coconut; his breath, like mint and bourbon; his hands felt like they were from slave times when he touched me—hungry, stealthy, trembling. 2. Out of: He pulled a knot of bills from his pocket, paid the man and we went upstairs. 3. Not near to or in contact with: He smoked the weed, but, surprisingly, he kept it from me.
The formal conceit of the poem is borrowed from the dictionary: the poem is set up as an entry, with the title as the word that’s about to be defined; the poem’s text integrates the visual format of the dictionary and is not lineated; and the poem includes the numeric organization as well as the italicized, bracketed parts of speech typically found in the such an entry. Ingeniously, Jordan uses the part of the dictionary template that gives an example of how to use a word in a sentence to create the meat of the poem, the “as in” that usually cues those examples, becoming an anaphoric poetic device through which Jordan is able to tell the story of MacNolia’s husband, John, from her perspective—“As in, John was from Chicago, but he played guitar straight from the Delta…” The reader, thus is placed both inside MacNolia’s experience, but held at a distance through the form.
The form also makes the reader simultaneously aware of the external construct of definition and its constraints. Though rhythmic, the poem does not flow smoothly, but hiccups at each new revelation or realization. After all, the definitions that comprise a dictionary’s entries aren’t meant to be read as a seamless unit. Thus, the parts of speech, the numbers, the parentheticals, add a halting and disruptive element, mirroring the relationship between John and MacNolia. At the same time, the distinctness of the form gives a sense of accretion in which parts of John, MacNolia’s feelings for him, the different parts of their very different experiences, build and cohere—expanding the very nature of the definition, and showing how much is held in the word, the man, and the relationship.
Additionally, the authority of the dictionary is both transferred to and undercut by the content the form is asked to hold, i.e., a context that’s ostensibly objective (dictionary) is used to tell a relationship narrative. MacNolia’s experience and perspective are shored up by the definitive weight of the form, while the whole idea of being able to define anyone or anything is undercut some by the slipperiness of the poem’s affective content. The form here allows Jordan to juxtapose the intimate and the authoritative, bringing both perspectives to the poem, while destabilizing them both and demanding agility from the reader in holding both at the same time.
Jordan was the 2019 judge for the Furious Flower Poetry Prize, and came to JMU’s campus to read with the winner, Rachelle Parker, and honorable mention, Cynthia Manick. He visited my advanced poetry class on persona, and spoke with me about his poetics, his MFA experience, and what he looks for in a “good” poem. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
My students and I are thinking about persona, about the complications of it—what it means to assume another person’s history and character, and to imagine that you can speak through that. What are some of the things you weigh as a writer who works in persona?
I think the toughest part is allowing myself to just do it as the first step. This is something I always have to deal with with my own students—they’ll ask questions about, you know, can I write in this other person’s voice? Can I do this? And I always tell them “You can do it, but it might be hard, and you have to be willing to be up for that challenge.” Because sometimes I think they think about doing it just because they think it might be cool to be in this other voice. And I tell them, “This is going to be much harder, probably, than what you’ve been writing, what you’ve been doing, outside of that voice.”
That being said, the two things I keep in mind. First of all, is to think about the emotion of the scene—the emotion that we want to address within the scene that we’re writing about. So if I’m thinking about what it feels like to feel rejected, what it feels like to feel loss, what it feels like to feel like something has worked out in your life and you’re happy about it, or overjoyed about it. All of those emotions are pretty universal; we all know what that feels like. The thing then is to think about the restrictions that we have around voice, and those restrictions are usually in the form of whatever the iconography is of that voice—of that persona. With M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A, here is the voice of a 13 year old girl in 1936 in Akron, Ohio. There are certain things, there are certain symbols, language, and themes that I can pull from and there are certain things I can’t bring into it, as well. Once I know what those parameters are and I have a handle on the emotional resonance that I’m trying to render, then I can just set out to try to approximate that emotion through that voice. But if I haven’t thought about those things—you know, sometimes that comes through the research—then I can’t begin to write about it.
What is your relational experience with research and imagination in writing a persona?
Sometimes I’m bad with this, you know? [Laughs.] Seriously. Because I’ll do something that I know I shouldn’t do, in that I will procrastinate through research, and I’ll spend too much time on it. And the thing that happens, though, is once I start writing, I’ll push myself to write about what I want to write about, and then I’ll look at it and I’ll say, “okay, now I’ve hit a wall. There’s something that I need to do right now and I don’t know how to do it because I don’t know this thing.” So now I have to go back into the research and find this thing and then I can go back and do the thing I want to do in the writing, and I think that’s the order in which it should come—so you should try to write what you need to say and discover what it is that you don’t know and what you need research-wise and come back to it. Because we spent too much time on the front end just gorging on information. What happens is that sort of becomes a bit of a black hole, you know, you just keep going deeper and deeper and then you realize you’re not really thinking about the thing you’re trying to write about, you’re thinking more about the research project. And there needs to be a balance.
I guess I’m interested, too, in the idea of the persona as a mask—how does the person behind the mask show through or how well are they concealed? How do you deal with that negotiation of self/persona in the poem?
I like being concealed, I have to say—I have to admit it. It’s a space that allows me to say things and do things that I probably wouldn’t say outside of the poem. I like the poem as a space — a safe space—for that. One of the things that I remember when I did my first book, which was my thesis, you know it came out and like many books of poems, it came out, a handful of people read it, and then it kind of went away. A couple years after the book had been out, I get a call about nine o’clock at night from my mother. She asked me, why did I write that poem about our neighbor, or rather, her son? This poem about this guy who owed some folks some money and was strung up in his garage and I realize that I don’t want to answer those questions. These are things I don’t want to talk about; I don’t want to have to answer questions about something that I’m actually thinking or something that’s real in my own world.
And then I was also extremely attracted to the work of the poet Ai; when I first started writing, I think she’s the poet who I tried to imitate the most. I just thought what she does on the page, the way in which she’s able to inhabit these voices is something that was very appealing to me as someone who likes story—the idea of storytelling and creating character. I think as poets we often talk about the personas, you know, like ‘persona,’ but I think it’s really just coming down to characterization. How do you build a character? And so with those characters, I feel like I can kind of hide within that skin and say things I normally say. I look at M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A as probably my most personal book because I feel like in that book I was totally unvarnished emotionally. I was able to kind of let it out in a way that I felt like I needed to at that time you know? I also just felt the freedom, like I felt total freedom, to say and write and be what I wanted to be on the page without feeling like someone was going to ask “Why are you feeling that way?”
You’re not liable in some ways. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Exactly, exactly.
I’m curious about other pivotal or foundational writers and specific moments for you.
I remember I had Cornelius Eady’s Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, and I was walking around with that book for weeks and just was in love with the poems, and the book, and the whole arc of the collection—what it was doing. Then I heard he was coming to town to read, and this was at a time when I had just dropped out of a MFA program and I thought, you know, I might still write poems as a hobby at some point, but I’m going to continue being a journalist. And I saw him [Eady] read at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, and he read “Gratitude.” There are these moments in that poem that were exact moments from my own life, and I just welled up with tears listening to him. That was the first time I had that kind of experience at a poetry reading. So that was an important moment. He’s another person I just tried to imitate as much as I could. I still just love Cornelius — the turn in his poems, you know? I mean his poetry is so… it wants. It’s intellectual and at the same time it’s emotional. And it kind of sneaks up on it because the language can be so unvarnished and yet so philosophical at the same time. And it’s impossible to imitate, but it’s a good ambition to have and I still love his poetry.
Thomas & Beulah, Rita Dove’s book, was pivotal for me—having a book like that that also told a story that was in my hometown. Thomas & Beulah is such a beautiful book, I thought I would never be able to write a book about that same location. That book was a real North Star when I was writing M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. You know, I can still remember specific readings and I remember being at the Folger and seeing Patricia Smith read “Skinhead”. I was just electrified after that reading. I was just thinking I’ve got to get a handle on persona. Once again, the power of that reading really blew me away and I’ve been a big fan of her work ever since. And of course, the poet that I probably go to the most, still, is the poet my professorship is named for, Robert Hayden. Hayden’s work— the elegance of that work— is something that I still aspire to; it’s just so formally sound and also agile on a language level. You know, it’s just a great ambition to have. And I could go on and on.
Tell me about your journey to poetry: you didn’t start out as a poet. Also looking back now, did it seem like it was inevitable that you’d wind up here?
No. Not at any turn. Not at all. No, I just didn’t… I never thought that I’d be doing this work; I never thought that I’d ever have a book, you know what I mean? I never thought that that was in the stars for me. It was something that I used to admire: people who had books, people who were writers, and things like that. But it was something I just never thought that I would ever be able to live up to. So, I’m really grateful. The work that I do, either as a professor or as a writer, is something that I begin every day with great gratitude for having in my life. You know, I’m a first-generation college student. No one in my family has had a job like this. Everyone’s pretty much done blue collar work—my mother was a nurse but she went to nursing school at a hospital years ago—so there was nothing in my background that would dictate that I would be doing this work now. I recognize that and I’m immensely grateful for it.
You did a Low-Res MFA; what was the experience of that like, and how did you keep a writing practice when you weren’t in a workshop every week?
You know, I went to Warren Wilson — the MFA program at Warren Wilson college. It was transformative for me. I’ll tell you, first of all, who my advisors were— the people who supervised each semester for me— and you’ll get a better understanding of the luck I had. My first semester, there was a faculty member; it was her first semester and we were teamed up. It was Claudia Rankine. So that was the first person I worked with when I knew, like, zero, right? And then after Claudia, the second semester, I had the late, great Agha Shahid Ali as the next person I studied under. Then I had the beautiful Eleanor Wilner, and, you know she’s just, angelic, so, it was just great to have that good spirit guiding me through my penultimate semester there. And then my thesis advisor my final semester was Carl Phillips.
You just drafted a fantasy poet team!!
[Laughs.] Exactly. Right? It was a transformative experience for me. And those are the folks I worked with but there were other writers there who I learned so much from. Ellen Bryant Voight has been a big influence on me and my work. Reggie Gibbons at Northwestern—I probably wouldn’t have gotten that first book published without him. There’s a poet who I don’t hear a lot of folks talking about, but I really love her work and I used to love her lectures, which is Joan Aleshire. You know, so there are a lot of poets I studied under in grad school who I really admired and just sort of changed things for me. That experience allowed me to do something, to study at that level, you know, at that “All Star Level” while holding down a job.
I had a regular job. I was working at a news agency in DC. I was working on my poems, working on my little annotations— these little essays we had to write—and getting these incredible letters from these writers engaging my work, and taking it very seriously. I’ll tell you this story: in my second semester I was working with Shahid, and his mother was dying. Shahid had gone to Kashmir, India, to do the funeral arrangements for his mother. And we weren’t doing the internet, this wasn’t an email—this was mail mail, right? So, he is in Kashmir taking care of his mother’s funeral arrangements, and he takes the time to go through my poems and write me a letter. And he sends it to me Global Express. Whenever I feel like complaining about work, and like, some student sending me some work or something to go over, I think about that. I think about what he gave me, and I try to give that back to him, to these students. That’s what it was like for me to be a student at Warren Wilson at that time. And it’s changed my idea — whatever idea I had — about what poetry was like, what the world was like. It’s like Philip Levine says, “this is what work is,” you know what I mean? And I’ve come to realize that and really appreciate that. I have blue collar roots and it does feel like blue collar work often, for me, and I say that out of respect for it.
As a teacher of poetry, you mentioned attention as one thing you try to gift your students. In a field where there is often discussion about whether you can teach poetry, what do you try to have your students leave with when they leave your classroom?
I want them to be better readers of poetry. I think that’s the thing that’s the hardest to teach poets and non-poets alike. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had poets who would come to me, final semester, working on their theses and they’re asking questions like, “I don’t know how to sequence this.” I’ll ask them “What do you think this book is about? Thematically, what do you think you’re doing?” and they have no idea though they’ve been working on it for a few years. And I think a lot of it comes from not being acculturated to reading lyrically. From childhood we are taught about narrative; we’re taught that almost organically, right? So we have a sense of what the structure of a narrative is— a sense of the structure of what a story should sound like or feel like. And if someone hands you a tome of a novel, doesn’t matter how big it is, if you go through that tome, 900 pages, and you just read it and read it and read it and then put a bookmark and you come back to it. But, you know, a collection of poems? It doesn’t matter how thin it is, people will pick up a collection of poems and they’ll start on page 83—Oh, I like that title! I’ll go back and oh there’s something! Oh, page 54, ‘Dust’, I’ll try that one! And they flip back and forth and they never really get a sense of what the book should feel like, what the arc of it is, what the experience of the read is for the reader, and what the author attempted to do with that sequence. And because they haven’t had that experience, they haven’t internalized that enough, then when it comes time for them to write their own book, they have no idea how to put it together. So, yeah, to be better readers.
Also, I say to read with an annotating mind, so when you’re reading, you’re thinking how does this poet handle the movement of time? How does this poet handle moving between an exterior world of imagery to the interiority of the speaker? To think in those terms as they’re reading — so to read like a poet, to read like a writer.
It’s funny you mentioned the ordering thing because, Van, I call your name a lot. When I was in your workshop at Callaloo, I will never forget, you said, “There are at least three books in every collection, depending on the order.” It kind of blew my mind a little bit and it became a project of mine—I use it to structure my readings; I’m ask, “Okay, if I start here, where do these poems take me?” So in terms of that being something you try to gift your students, it’s something you gifted me without even knowing it.
Oh, well that’s good to know.
But I’m also curious about your own process in pulling these books together. Where do you start? Do you always start with a project? And how do you move through, and how do you finally shape that final product?
You know, it’s gonna seem disingenuous if I say I don’t usually have a project like that in mind, but I often do not. I might have some project in mind but it rarely ends up being the project that I started writing, right? With M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A — I started writing M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A thinking I was writing a book about the Great Migration. I started these poems on that topic and then… It’s a long story, I won’t go into the whole story, but I ended up coming home to Akron, Ohio to see LeBron James play in a high school basketball game. I got up the next day and opened up the Akron Beacon Journal, the local newspaper, and they had this column by this columnist, Mark J. Price, who writes this column called “This Place, This Time”. And that was — it was a full double page spread with photos about MacNolia Cox. I’m drinking coffee; it was at my parents’ home — both of my parents were still alive at the time—and as each of them got downstairs I would ask, “Have you heard about this woman? She would have been your time period — blah blah blah.” Neither of them had ever heard of her. And I thought, That’s really fascinating. I remember I kept the paper, and put it in my suitcase and I thought I might write a poem or two about her. And then the more I delved into her story, the more I realized that her story was emblematic of an entire era. I kind of stop worrying about these other poems — and they weren’t any good anyway [Laughs.] So it kind of got me the fresh reset, you know? And so I started doing these poems and there are a couple of poems from that— “Red Ball Express” and “Asa Philip Randolph”, those poems were a part of that [earlier project], but the central figure was MacNolia, you know?
Quantum Lyrics was very similar. I was trying to wrap my mind around what was going on with myself because my father had just died, and I was still trying to put things together and deal with that. And someone suggested — Ellen Bryant Voight, actually— that I write about it. I was resisting it. And then, like now, I still like to generate out in public— I’ll be at a coffee shop or somewhere—and I was living in Greensboro and they still had Borders [books]. I was at a Borders and I had my earbuds in and I was doing my thing. And I got up to walk around for a little while because I’d been sitting for too long, and they had — you know, I’m a comic book geek — they had a comic book rack and I started to look at the comics. And as I was looking at the comics my curiosity started growing around the physics inside the comics. There’s a comic book writer named Geoff Johns, and I was reading this Green Lantern that Geoff Johns had written. And if you know anything about comic book writing, he’s a very, sort of, philosophical writer of comics. And that issue — just something about it—grabbed me emotionally. When I went back to sit down and write I couldn’t get it out of my head; I started writing about comic book superheroes. And then I went on to write more about physics. And I was still writing this book and working on it and I ended up getting a solid-state physicist at The University of Minnesota who helped me finish the book, like just checking the physics and I was able to have these conversations with him about it. At that point, I was at the University of Texas and he was just invaluable in the process. But I had no idea that’s what I was going to end up doing when I started out with the book.
And then with The Cineaste, you know, I was writing these poems that were ekphrastic poems, but they had nothing to do with film. They were other kinds of art. And once again I was not satisfied with that process. I’m not even going to go into what I thought I was writing about, it was just about art. And these pieces, they were not satisfying to me. And in between that time, I was spending a lot of time watching movies. I had this thing called Mubi — mubi.com— it’s like a Netflix for independent classic foreign films — I would just binge watch those films. And I would also watch films that kind of had some kind of connection to my past in some way or another. You know, re-watching American Gigolo, re-watching The Red Balloon, re-watching Killer Sheep, things like that. And I realized, This is all I really care about right now, I’m not really thinking about this other stuff. And then I thought, What would happen if I just engage this and start dealing with this? In the interim, I got turned onto Oscar Micheaux. And I thought, Man, I just want to know more about this guy, so I ended up going to South Dakota, finding his homestead, and doing this research again. And that’s how that came about. I kind of stumble into them in a way.
I did have a question about ekphrasis and the skill and a challenge of writing into and about another art form, right? You have to engage the structures there, or think about, rather, how to engage them. So what are some of the things you found structurally intriguing that clearly influenced the book?
The one thing I’d say about that is ekphrasis is a lot like persona, you know? There’s a same level of a challenge in that, okay, this has already been done well. This has already been done by someone else. This is a beautiful painting, this is a beautiful sculpture, this is a beautiful dance performance—whatever it is that you’re trying to render in a poem. And so, then the challenge is what else do you have to say about it? This is a question I’ll ask my students about poems in general: “Why are you writing about that in a poem? Why isn’t it an essay? Why isn’t it a blog? Why is a poem the right medium for this?” And so the first order of business for me, is that you have to bring something to it that’s not already there; there has to be something new. Otherwise, why would someone read your poem instead of just going to watch the movie? So, when I first started writing The Cineaste for instance, you know, the working title was Auteur and I was writing a lot about films by these great filmmakers and then I realized that: one, those poems weren’t that good and I couldn’t figure out why. And the main reason was that they were films I had nothing else to say about. And I was just kind of saying the same thing but in language, as opposed to the film. So those didn’t make it. And then, I realized there were films that I admired that weren’t necessarily like “auteur” level films. Westworld — this was before the TV show—I was writing about Westworld before it was ever on the radar of HBO. And I was writing about the film that really is not that good. It’s really not a great film at all, but it’s a film that meant a lot to me as a kid. Also, The Mack, another Blaxploitation film: people might look at that film and all they think about is Goldie the pimp, but there’s a lot happening in that movie as well, particularly around the relationship between the son and the mother. So, there are just different things that I wanted to do—I was thinking about the desire for escapism in Westworld; I was thinking about the relationship between the son and the mother in The Mack. They were films I felt like I could say something else about. Certain films I didn’t like the endings of so I changed the ending of the films. I would cast myself as a protagonist or an antagonist, you know? And in that way I felt like there was something else I had to say about it. Sometimes it was very personal, sometimes it was not that personal, but there was something new I would bring to it and I think that’s the first order of business with ekphrastics.
That makes sense. I’m curious because you said a couple times that you were writing poems that you didn’t think were any good. And you recently judged our [Furious Flower’s] poetry contest and so in that situation, what are things that you’re looking for? How do you determine ‘this is a good poem”?
Yeah, wow. That’s a question I’m going to have to think about. You know, I think for me, I always want to learn something from a poem. I want to go to a poem, and I want it to force me to think about something in a way that either I hadn’t thought about before, or give me permission to think about it in a way that I didn’t feel like I had permission to think about it in. And so, often I’ll ask someone at a workshop, “What’s new here? What are we learning about in this poem?” and sometimes I’ll look at my own work and that’s the question I’ll ask of it, “Is there anything new that’s happening here? Any new information? Any new approach to this thing? Would I want to read this poem again after that first reading? Is there something to come back to again and again? If I go back to that well, is there anything to bring up? Is there something formally that I admire about it? The structure, the music, the line? A turn of a phrase? Something that I can hold onto?” I think those are the things I, just as a consumer of the art, am most attracted to.
That’s awesome. You mentioned the sentence and the turn of the line in another interview, and you mentioned your love of the sentence. I’m curious about how that manifests—what is it that’s attractive to you about sentence and syntax and certainly how it plays out in the context of poetry, but also outside of poetry? What does it mean to be a lover of sentences in the world?
I mean, I think if you don’t love sentences, you can’t be a writer. I’m always suspicious when I see someone who comes into a workshop and week after week, their work is in fragments, you know? I’m like, You’re hiding something. Who are you? If you don’t love the sentence and you can’t think through syntax in some way, something’s wrong. Truncated language, fragments — I mean, there’s a place for all of that as well, and it can work but you can tell when someone really understands syntax and they’re using fragments and truncated language and when someone is using it because they don’t have a handle on the syntax. And the thing about it is that I don’t know how someone’s mind can turn and really evolve in an opinion of something, without a handle on syntax. When you start thinking about complex issues, in my mind, I hear those opinions forming through sentences. And when I’m reading someone, even if it’s fiction, I’m very attracted to the way in which that person uses the sentence. One of the first things I was attracted to in the reading of Toni Morrison was her syntax. I feel the same way about reading Baldwin. If you read a Yusef Komunyakaa poem and you’re not swept up in the sentence of that, or a Carl Philips poem in the grammar, in the way in which he’s using the sentence? I mean, these people, you know — Marilyn Nelson — folks who can use the sentence, use it in different forms, use it in free verse, use it for different subjects, and it always feels like fresh language. It’s like a bottomless reservoir of ideas. I liken it to a musician, like a jazz musician, and they’re improvising, right? You can tell, when you listen to a musician, who really has a handle on their modes, who has a handle on scales, who has a handle on arpeggios. Because it’s through those modes and those arpeggios and those scales, those core progressions, that they’re thinking. And you can see the ideas and hear them as they’re being moved around and innovated upon. It’s the same thing with the syntax. I don’t know how someone can write a poem without really having a handle on syntax.
You’re also an essayist and talking about poetics in the third Furious Flower anthology, Seeding the Future, you write, “Our nouns and verbs will add up to nothing if we don’t know what we want to address.” And you point out, ‘No, I didn’t say that you don’t know what you want to say, what do you want to address.’ You write “we need the desire to say something, and to have a clear intention behind why we’re trying.” And so that the idea of not knowing how to think without the syntax, but at the same time, that not being the thing that ultimately drives the poem, but then it is the thing that drives the poem… talk to me about that negotiation.
I think people often will go to the poem and they’re trying to write the poem—the generation of the poem—feeling like they have to have an answer to something. We oftentimes will struggle with the end of a poem thinking about the answer. And I think the poem is a space in which we can celebrate the question just as much as the answer. In many ways, more so than the answer. Because the questions that come up inside of the poem, that’s when you see what the poet is trying to deal with, what the poem is struggling with. And just to witness someone in the throes of trying to understand something is enough for me. Like, that’s the thing that I’m most attracted to when I go to the work. If I’m reading someone and they seem like they don’t have that intellectual curiosity that leaves them feeling like a child at times in the process, I don’t really trust that voice. I want to hear someone who’s wrestling with something and presenting it to us almost as if they’re discovering it along with us, as we’re reading it. And I think that’s what I was trying to get at in that piece.
We were talking way earlier, I think in the car, about voice. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to have a sure voice in a poem while questioning?
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I feel like you have to kind of separate the… posturing of the voice with the authenticity of the voice and what happens, there’s space inside the poem for hedging language, and for it to be a little messy at times. And I think sometimes what happens is that, particularly because of the dynamic of being in a workshop, and having, particularly if you’re in an MFA program, you have that weekly assessment. You have this moment where you feel like ‘oh, you know, I have to have a win this week’. You know, I have to come in with something that’s just like this perfect little jewel box, right? And the issue with that, is that’s not going to be your true voice. Because you know, you want that voice to be you in the dark, like, you want to know, like when no one no one’s looking, you want to reveal that voice to people. And so sometimes it’s messy, sometimes you’re uncertain, and there’s like some hedging on language in the voice. You know, sometimes you’re sort of — you’re self-editing. You hear that voice that comes in. So those are the voices I find most interesting as a reader of the poem.
So you can be questioning, just also in your own voice, not in someone else’s. As a writer what do you still find surprising, or that the craft of poetry still teaches you?
I feel like the craft of poetry teaches me to question myself and to evaluate myself. I’ve been working with these poems that are set up to sort of take the persona and do, like, a 360-evaluation —as my wife says — a 360-evaluation of that figure where we can look at what the speaker knows, what the speaker doesn’t know, what other people know about the speaker, what the speaker doesn’t know that other people know about speaker, and things that the speaker knows about the self that no one else knows that person. And so, I feel like the poem forces me to do that to myself. I’m constantly evaluating my limitations and my strengths through the poem and through the writing of it, learning things along the way. Every book I’ve written, I’ve learned something, and I’m not talking about subject matter. I’m learning something about myself in the process of writing the book. That’s what the craft of it does. When you subject the poem to something that you may not even believe in, but you’re subjecting the poem to that thing, you’re pushing that poem to say this thing that you probably did not understand when you first sat down to write it. I’ve said this before—my poems are definitely smarter than I am in that way because they’re constantly teaching me things about myself that I don’t normally see and don’t have the real opportunity to explore in my day to day.
You talk about the poem as an opportunity to see the self, and I’m curious about the social role, function, possibility of the poem. What does the poem offer outside of the self in terms of opportunity?
We were just talking about social media before we even got on camera. So much of the way in which we engage larger communities is done through platitudes. You can go through a whole day without having a meaningful conversation with someone—even on Twitter! Even the impression of letting people into your life through Instagram and these different platforms is like the staging of a reality show—you believe it must be ‘real’, but you know it’s still scripted in a way. But I feel like the poem is that good one space in which we can talk, give real talk. We can be totally vulnerable and it’s totally appropriate. You can be totally emotional, and no one’s gonna be uncomfortable with it. You can say things that would make people uncomfortable in other situations and they can be accepted in this vessel. I think that’s what it does. We don’t know how to talk about race. We don’t know how to talk about sex and sexual orientation. We don’t know how to talk across gender lines. We don’t have enough respect for our elders, you know? Everything is about the new thing and how young someone is as the “hot new thing,” and because we don’t have space to have those conversations, we need some space for that and it can’t all be done in therapy. You know, everyone wants to go behind a closed door and talk to someone in confidence. But how do you replicate that on a larger scale and have a conversation with the world, with our community? I think the poem is that space.
That is a great note to end on. Thank you so much. That was awesome.
Thank you. Thanks for bringing me here.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh