A Necessary Focus:  A. Van Jordan’s Poetic Form

By Leslie Wingard, PhD

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A.Van Jordan’s sardonic wordplay and technical prowess are often elided by critics and interviewers who focus solely on racial content and representation. Dorothy J. Wang argues in the preface of her book Thinking Its Presence (Stanford UP, 2015, XXII) that aesthetic forms are inseparable from social, political, and historical contexts in the writing and reception of all poetry. She questions the tendency of critics and academics alike to occlude the role of race in their discussions of the American poetic tradition and casts a harsh light on the double standard they apply in reading poems by poets who are racial minorities. Wang argues that critics should read minority poetry with the same attention to language and form that they bring to their analyses of writing by canonical white poets. Jordan’s close attention to form is consistent across his poetic production: two chapbooks, The Homesteader (Unicorn Press, 2013) and I Want To See My Skirt (Unicorn Press, 2021) and the collections, The Cineaste: Poems (Norton, 2013), Quantum Lyrics (Norton, 2007), M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A (Norton, 2005), and Rise (Tia Chucha, 2001). His commitment to the Western literary traditions in the forms of sestinas, sonnets, and the epic are met by far more modern and experimental techniques including his borrowing of cinematic narrative structures and persona poems in The Cineaste and M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. This is all the more reason it is necessary for teachers to focus on Jordan’s artful form when introducing his poetry in their classrooms.

A vivid example of Jordan’s formal abilities is in his most recent chapbook, I Want To See My Skirt (2021), which is the result of collaboration across history and geography between the poet and two additional artists. Jordan sees collaboration as a type of translation in that, “you have to figure out the language of the other artist as you bring your language together with theirs” (Unicorn Press, 2021). He sees the poems in I Want To See My Skirt as mainly sestinas that work like a tailor’s weave in a textile to describe the texts of contemporary Black multimedia artist Cauleen Smith and the late great Malian photographer Malick Sidibe (1935-2016). Sidibé’s photographs are stylized celebrations of Malian men and women in the era of independence from French colonial rule. Jordan, Smith, and Sidibe’s genres are so well-coordinated in I Want To See My Skirt that the intricacies of form are highlighted first and foremost in the chapbook: they “come together to make a new tapestry, something agile enough to hold the past and the present close to our hearts” (3). This chapbook about the growing pains of youth also includes repeated words like “body” and descriptions of a plethora of clothes that will attract students of different ages, genders, and backgrounds; in other words, they will relate to it via its form.

In “Roka’s Parents,” Jordan imagines the parents of a young girl translating for each other their distinct yet coterminous languages for loving their child. I argue that within the six stanzas of six unrhyming lines the repetition of the words “(not a) problem” and “skirt” are especially noteworthy. I Want To See My Skirt is also the title of a 2006 film by Cauleen Smith in which Smith and Jordan play Roka’s parents. Both the poem and film center on the four-year-old daughter. Her beauty, vulnerability, and character are depicted through photographs of her in a beloved skirt from the United States. She will learn that her own body and Black skin are representations made by others as much as by herself. The father in the poem tells the mother, “Don’t forget, I too understand/the ways of the flesh and the power of the body,” and the mother responds, “Let’s not make such a big deal over a skirt./When I put it on her, it was for fun: not a problem.” The father retorts, “Yes, my dear, trust me, it’s not a problem./But a father must show concern for his daughter’s body./There’s no reason why I should skirt/around this issue: men simply want knowledge/of what a woman has to offer beneath her clothes./Always. And this both of you must understand” (9). I would ask my undergraduate students to pay attention to how, exactly, Jordan builds momentum and understanding by utilizing just the two words that stand-out most to me: “(not a) problem” and “skirt.” Indeed, Roka’s budding knowledge about her race and gender is important in this poem, and I know that my students will see that, but Jordan helps us to realize that race, gender, and form are not opposed but instead working together in the piece. 

Juan Wynn, who studied A. Van Jordan’s work in an undergraduate class I taught at the College of Wooster, sees the form of Jordan’s work as a model for his own writing just as much if not more than its content. He recently reflected on reading the poetry. Wynn bumped into the renowned poet at a bookstore in his hometown Newark, New Jersey in 2016.  “I actually had a copy of Quantum Lyrics that I had been annotating,” Wynn said, “so it was incredible that he signed it after we talked about MFA programs and writing that day.”  Quantum Lyrics is ambitious in its perplexing investigation of the human condition via jazz and R&B motifs and actual encounters with racists, the stories of comic book heroes and Albert Einstein, and the minutiae of equations and other data in the world of physics. The volume is powerful because of its form: it moves back and forth between the language of music and the language of science to question which, if any, can penetrate to the core of peoples’ experiences. Because of its complex structure, Wynn “…often returns to Quantum Lyrics. Although it is a full-length collection, the first section in particular is a vision about how to start a collection really strong, meaning in an impressionable way and showcasing formal variety[.]”

Jordan visited my Wooster classes in person and via Zoom on multiple occasions, which allowed an opportunity for them to discuss both form and content with the poet himself.  My students noted that the word “mother” comes up many times in Jordan’s poems “Orientation: Wittenberg University, 1983” and “Que Sera Sera” from the collection Rise, and that Jordan’s poetic form signals that the mother could be his own or someone else’s or everybody’s. He expressed to them after they studied “Orientation” that he wanted to make the Wittenberg University orientation experience easier on his mom, who was jolted by seeing her son and other first-generation students wholly unprepared for undergraduate life.  This culture and class shock resonated with many of my Wooster students, and it is crucial to discuss the ways in which, among other formal strategies, Jordan’s choices of when to use end-stops vs. enjambment create that feeling. One detailed example that we discussed was the additional question mark removed but still felt after the word “color” in the following lines:  But is there really a color / for ignorance when it hurts self? / I can see that I’m not ready. Astute students noted that they learned in college-level literature, Africana Studies, and sociology classes that race is a social construction, and that the enjambment here is key in showing that the speaker, just out of high school, may not yet have been able to put academic language to how their younger mind was actually querying about race and its overall effects. To put it another way, my students think the enjambment here perfectly exhibits how quickly a high schooler, after college orientation and some college courses, may move from feeling pain, or worse, shame around racist acts to questioning race itself and blaming society for inequalities that stem from it. Furthermore, they observed, the end-stop after the word “ready” indicates that this first-generation speaker feels entirely cut off from the worlds of pre-knowledge to which other students at the orientation already had access.  Some readers also thought this poem’s setting in the classroom to be one meant to relay that there exists a power battle between students and their elders (“I decide what to do before she even gives…”). While a valid analysis, Jordan’s aims concern the ethics of pedagogy: he sees the classroom as a space meant for the equal exchange of ideas from all gathered.  His mother’s sense of displacement, her disorientation by race and class at the undergraduate orientation, push the poem’s speaker to envision a disruption of long-established exclusion and power imbalances. The poem’s speaker boldly asserts that they should be “setting out” to always “make a mockery of (any divisions drawn in) class.” Likewise, Van Jordan’s form choices play with readers—to prove that society needs lessons on how not to be ruled by race, class, and other related biases, Jordan tricks them in to reading the word “class” as both social division and a course for instruction at the same time. 

In my Literary Theory class, we did a unit on Jacques Derrida, deconstruction, and the panopticon. To focus on form, the class viewed Tom Tykwer’s innovative German action film Run Lola Run (1998) as a text about life as a text: relatedly, Derrida’s famous line, “everything is a text,” reminded them that deconstruction theory relies on all things being open to multiple interpretations. We then read Jordan’s poem on the film and found that its form also simulated an unfinished puzzle, lacking only the final pieces of the reader’s/viewer’s hopes, doubts, and judgements. One student was curious about what inspired Jordan to focus on Manni and Lola’s relationship and was also interested in Jordan’s choices in poetic structure. While it is not the exact form of an English sonnet, it seemed to them to be loosely modeled after one with the separated stanzas and rhyming couplet at the end. Jordan responded that, “‘Run Lola Run’ is written as a terza rima. I wanted a form that had a system of repetition in it, but a repetition that also showed a relationship between moments that came before the present moment. I close on a couplet to show both closure and for it to represent the couple in the film.” He wanted the poem to end on a note of relationship advice and for that advice to clue into what the cycles in the film mean and to the meaning of the film as a whole. According to Jordan: “When I saw this film in the theaters in the late 90s, I just saw it as an adrenaline rush of an adventure with a brilliant structure. When I saw it again with some distance, I was able to focus on the relationship, which is really what dictates the structure of the film. The one lesson I walk away from the film with is that relationships take work, but working at them pays off. I wish I had picked up on that piece of advice sooner.” So the poet links poetic form and content to cinematic form and content and makes these connections clear to the students.

Jordan’s M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A is about 13-year-old MacNolia Cox who was the first Black winner of the Akron District Spelling Bee in 1936. Cox was thought to have lost in the final round of national competition because the Southern white judges cheated her. Jordan deploys film’s narrative conventions to tell this story of Black struggle and achievement, all the while engaging with and expanding on poetic form. Many of the poem titles come from screenplay headings, are called movie reviews, and have film directions such as “Interior/Exterior” in them. My students working in small groups in class are especially responsive to the unique form of this collection about the spelling bee. For instance, in my Religion in Black Film and Literature class, time and time again when we watch the movie The Green Pastures, and then read the poem “Green Pastures” from Jordan’s collection:  students are taken aback by this 1936 film directed by two white men which depicts stereotyped stories from the Bible as visualized by Black characters. Then, they recall that it was released during the same year that MacNolia Cox won the Bee in Akron. The personified Jim Crow who “works on the long track in hell” in Jordan’s “Green Pastures” poem resonates with them. Similarly, the way in which Jordan utilizes wordplay to compare imagined signs now reading “Negroes, Too” on water fountains in this film’s south to the strands of pearls middle-aged women wear stands out to my students. They note the irony: these imaginary signs adorning the water fountains came much too late in history, and so, as Jordan’s clever form choice highlights, they have lost any and all opportunity to hang “elegantly”:  they are forever cruel and distasteful (92).

College and university-level faculty and students would benefit from robust teaching tools and spaces which focus on not only Black poetry’s content but also its innovative form. After all, the form guides the purpose and tone of a poem. When the message and form fit together, the product is poetry that is truly powerful. Even more powerful is watching a process unfold while teaching about the form of A. Van Jordan’s texts in particular alongside film, visual art, literary theory, or music: students generate something new and we instructors see them find their way by mapping interdisciplinarity.

Works Cited

I Want to See my Skirt. Directed by Cauleen Smith, in collaboration with poet A. Van Jordan, 2006.

Jordan, A. Van. The Cineaste: Poems, New York: Norton, 2013. 

Jordan, A. Van. “College of Wooster African American Literature Student Questions.” Received by A. Van Jordan. November 15, 2020. Email Interview. Wingard, Leslie.

Jordan, A. Van. “College of Wooster Literary Theory and Research Methods Student Questions.” Received by A. Van Jordan. February 20, 2019. Email Interview. Wingard, Leslie. 

Jordan, A. Van. The Homesteader, Greensboro, Unicorn Press, 2013.

Jordan, A. Van.  M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A, New York: Norton, 2004. 

Jordan, A. Van. Quantum Lyrics, New York: Norton, 2007.

Jordan, A. Van. Rise, Symar, CA: Tia Chucha, 2001.

Jordan, A. Van and Cauleen Smith.  I Want to See my Skirt, Greensboro, Unicorn Press, 2021.

“Our Life in Poetry:  New Poets/New Poetics.”  The Philoctetes Center.  Event Program.  29 January 2008.  http://philoctetes.org/documents/New%20Poets.pdf

Rowell, Charles H. “The Poem is Smarter than the Poet: An Interview with A. Van Jordan.” Callaloo.  Volume 27, Number 4, Fall 2004. 908-919.

Tykwer, Tom. Lola Rennt: Run Lola Run. Germany: X-Filme Creative Pool Productions, 1989.

Wang, Dorothy J.  Thinking its Presence:  Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry.  Stanford UP, 2015. xxii.

Wynn, Juan. “A. Van Jordan’s Poetry.” Received by Juan Wynn, January 1, 2022. Email Interview. Wingard, Leslie.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


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Leslie E. Wingard earned her BA in English from Spelman College and her PhD in English from UCLA. She is Associate Professor and Chair of English at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. Her articles have been published by Religion and LiteratureReligion and the ArtsSouth: A Scholarly JournalChristianity & Literature, and American Quarterly. Her book under contract at the University of Georgia Press is entitled The Acts and Arts of Faith: Representation and Black Christianity. Her primary research areas include African American literature, Black visual culture, and women’s and gender studies. She has been a research fellow at Haverford College, Williams College, Princeton University, and Princeton Theological Seminary. 

 

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