“Poetry of the Instant, Poetry of the Instance: A Conversation with Rodney Jones.” The Missouri Review. 31.4 (2008): 50-59.
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, winner of the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Peter I.B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award, and a Harper Lee Award, you are a poet familiar with success. But 2007 was a particularly good to you. Your recent collection, Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005 was short listed for the International Griffin Poetry Prize and, of course, received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for 2007.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: It’s hard to imagine being in such a position in contemporary American poetry. What’s it like?
Rodney Jones: I’m getting old, laminated, bronzed and stuffed. Neruda, possibly the most romantic poet of the twentieth century, wanted to see his poetry as a work like plumbing or carpentry, less a profession than a job that he felt fortunate to do. I keep that in mind when I receive rejections or awards. Not to say that rejections don’t depress me or that I am immune to the ego-jacking side-effects of awards, but the work itself is the thing, the transformations and the discoveries-the little bonuses, William Stafford used to say.
Someone, a philosopher, perhaps it was Kierkegaard, had it that artists were miserable people who were doomed to a cycle in which they attempted to create perfect selves in their art only to be thrown back on their imperfect lives. My life is not perfect, but it is a very good one as lives go.
AMK: Dan Chiasson’s review of Salvation Blues (Poetry September 2006) says that “Unless you think that new poetry cannot be narrative (in the old-fashioned, spell-casting, consecutive way) and cannot be accessible (its action intelligible at first or second reading), Jones is a poet worth taking very seriously indeed.” Chiasson (and others who deem your work praiseworthy) seems to have hit the nail on the head now that you’ve reached such high critical acclaim.
I’m wondering, where does Rodney Jones go from here? You’ve published eight collections of poetry and seem to be in the prime of your career. What’s next?
RJ: I’m wondering that, too.
I have never been able to conceive of an entire book until it arrives, line by line, poem by poem, and each book has come to me differently. The Unborn was exploration, pure and simple accommodation to wonder and the sensuality of language. Transparent Gestures challenged me. I wrote it one poem at a time, so nothing overlapped, an act of will. Then I got tired of working that way. Apocalyptic Narrative began as automatic writing, wild drafts, easy on the front side, much harder to revise. Things That Happen Once is mostly poetic translations of journal entries that were intended to be loose drafts of poems–I wrote the journal entries with a very conscious emphasis on rhythm, image, and the need to make original language-I had thought to make prose poems, but when I went to revise-and there were several hundred pages of journal entries-the rhythms seemed to dictate lines.
In Elegy for The Southern Drawl, I worked in two modes: one very formal, and the other loose and conversational. I wish that I had spent another year with Kingdom of The Instant. Of all the books that I have published, that one disappoints me the most.
The new poems in Salvation Blues were tough to write because I felt that I was defining a period of work. When a book is finished, I feel that I am finished with that way of working, tired of it, exhausted. Strains go from book to book because I continue to work on poems for years if they remain provocative, but, essentially, I prefer the fresh project, the experiment. My mother-in-law, Urania Zepeda, described a politician she disliked by saying, “Son-of-a-bitch talks like he doesn’t know the next word that he’s going to say.” For me, that seems the necessary first step, and perhaps another way of expressing what Stevens was after when he commended, “the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.”
AMK: It’s interesting that you mention politics. Poetry, like politics, always seems to exist in this realm of extremely high expectations. I think this may have something to do with its “usefulness” or with the question of it’s usefulness, that is.
Many of your poems address this issue of the value of poetry. “A Defense Of Poetry” reconciles the differences between you- moved to poetry by “a semi loaded with bridge girders,” the academics- governed by “abstract identity…authorless, quoted/and italicized,” and to the working-class you grew up with and to whom you seem to apologize to for being a poet in earlier poems like “Mental Sorrows” and “Not See Again.”
“A Defense” seems comfortable with verse and the nature of its “La-la oblivion” which makes “a little dent like a dart.” Do you feel as if you owe something to “working-class” America? Have you, in some ways, grown out of this guilt?
RJ: Obviously, I am a number of years away from having done hard physical work for a living, but as a boy and young man, I worked constantly, on farms, in factories, and on construction crews. As a consequence, I see poetry in the realpolitik light of the people who do that kind of work. The connection is both deep and conflicted.
These conflicts diminish as I age, but they continue and function as scales, as one of the ways that I weigh poetry, my own and others. As for questioning the art, why should we not be doing that? Plato is dead, and someone has to carry on. People who look closely at the American poetry of our time closely find a supple and diverse art, not just an educational commodity.
AMK: What I find particularly striking about your work is that even though your later poems (like “A Defense”) display a more advanced reflective quality than earlier poems, your voice has never quavered; that metered, musical, observant narration is present throughout. Sure, you shift back and forth. You have a wide range of gears and velocities in which you work. But, if you look at the first poem of the collection and the last poem of the collection, it’s pretty clear you haven’t sacrificed much of your original vision.
Would you agree with this reading of your work? If so, how have you managed to do so consistently and over such a long period of time?
RJ: After my first book, The Story They Told Us of Light, was published, I was not happy with the book or, for that matter, with the poems that I was writing at the time.
Then Leon Stokesbury, who was in town giving a reading, told me that publishing a second book was much more difficult than a first. For some reason, this struck me as a liberation. Suddenly it was clear to me that none of the poetry mattered unless I approached it as something that I would not take back. Whether it took twenty years or a few months did not matter.
I do not imagine that I am a better poet than I was in 1982, only a different one. Ultimately, luck plays a part in the making of poetry, but I hold to two notions that do not have to do with luck: first, that craft should never be cheated on; secondly, that poetry should reflect character.
AMK: That notion seems pretty accurate to me. Would you agree with people like Chiasson who describe your work as “accessible”? While I agree with this characterization, when I think of accessible poetry I don’t think, “Oh yeah, Rodney Jones.” It’s hard for me to read a poem like “Contempt” or “The Bridge” and think “accessible.” Maybe this is because your poetry often works on two distinct narrative levels: the narrative of the instance and the narrative of the instant. Meaning, we have a narrative of some sort, and we have an inner voice that seemingly waits for no command or order to appear; it is simply there, screaming in the background. I’m thinking of poems like “The First Birth,” “Doing Laundry,” and “On Pickiness” to name a few.
RJ: I agree with your point. The narratives tend to be double-narratives, which not only involve a story, but also an idea of the story, or a philosophical counterpoint that sort of tags along and pipes up now and then, and yes, this does occur of a natural compulsion as opposed to a deductive poetics. Perhaps the faith that abides in such a narrative sense is that the story exists without the poem and that the poem only touches it at tangents.
In a sense the object of many of my poems is less to tell a story than to give shape to a philosophical meditation. I do not think that there are many purely narrative poems working in our language.
In the last few years, Ann Carson has written a couple that I think are brilliant: one, a book length work,Autobiography in Red; and another wonderful poem, “The Glass Essay,” which is sort of a novella. My old teacher and friend, Fred Chappell’s four-book narrative sequence, Midquest, is no less than a masterpiece.
But for the most part, the signal narratives of our time have been narratives of consciousness-a number of poems by C.K. Williams come to mind, and I would also include the finest work by Jorie Graham, who is not usually seen as a narrative poet, but who is surely at her best when writing about the consciousness that flickers from instant to instant.
AMK: When I read your work, I’m oftentimes reminded of an interview with Phillip Levine who, when asked, said one of his great influences was Chaucer because he incorporated real, everyday people into verse. This is another consistency in your work. Poems like “Pussy,” “Romance of The Poor” and “Whisper Fight at the Peck Funeral Home” are separated by 20 years of poetry and, yet, address American life with the same love, compassion and, perhaps, envy.
Is this where your poetry comes from? From this compassion; this envy? Do you consider it an honor, a duty to extol these figures from your past and present?
RJ: The source is not necessarily or purely literary. I grew up four miles outside of a town of 600, and by the time I was thirteen, I knew most of those people. My father knew all of them and others for miles around, men and women, black and white, and when he met someone that he did not know, it was not long before he made a connection with someone that they both knew. In fact, most of the talk in the country was about people, and not just the living or the recently dead. There was a kind of web, a legending and a curiosity that enclosed us. I take that with me, and I imagine that the longer cultural habit does go back to Chaucer, but not just through books and not just through language.
The cultural habit, which, anthropologists tell us, passes from one generation to another and survives the journey from one language another, and the reading come together, I think, in very interesting ways. Derek Walcott’s fondness for combining extraordinary high-register diction comes as much from Africa as it does from his reading of English literature. Marquez’s supernatural imagery attaches to both the oral tradition of the Columbian countryside and the poetry of Andre Breton. But all of these influences, conscious or unconscious, are social behavior and less valuable than the writer’s individual presence on the page.
AMK: One thing I love about your poems is how you inflate a small (local) subject, instance, or idea. Like the pigs of “For The Eating of Swine” transformed into the “dolphins of the backyard” or yourself as a baby in “Beautiful Child” becoming “a satellite in the orbit of their affections.” Do you write poetry like this with a smile on your face?
RJ: Several years ago, after I gave a reading at a college in Georgia, a student asked, “Does a poet have to be his own biggest fan?” At first, I was taken aback, but it is at least in the territory of a great question.
A poet’s love of poetry is everything. Roland Barthes calls it “joissance,” which relates, in my mind at least, to both play and sexual eroticism. It does not relate to subject matter. It is visceral, palpable, essentially ineffable. Surely, Gerald Stern’s “Soap,” moves me as much as any poem that I know of that relates to the holocaust. It is a deeply heartbreaking poem, and yet what a great sad joy one feels in the making of the poem, in its realization of rhythm and vision.
That sense of the poet’s pleasure in the work carries across languages and seems a creaturely relish. I think of how happy Basho must have been as he wrote The Narrow Road to The Interior, of Neruda in “Ode to Socks,” and Transtromer in “Schubertiana,” of Roethke in “Meditations of an Old Woman,” of Plath in “The Tulips, of “Hass in “Meditation at Lagunitas,” of Pinsky in “The Shirt,” or Hirsch in “Wild Gratitude,” Heaney in nearly every word. Joy.
My answer to the student in Georgia would be this: a poet does not have to be his biggest fan, but a poet must be utterly convinced, delighted by, and absorbed in the language of the poem, whether that poem take the form of an elegy or a joke.
AMK: We’ve talked a lot so far about the language of your poetry. But a lot of the work you do is with the image.
I notice that you oftentimes eschew the expected image or the typical way of constructing an image. Many of your poems make an attempt to describe something visually but become almost immediately distracted by some minute quality which shifts the subject of the poem to some other locale. If we think of the image as the construction of a visual, this constant shift could be considered a failure. But, then again, we’d have to define that word: image. How would you define it?
RJ: Image. Let’s see. Evidence? Isomorphs? Fillers for pentimento and palimpsest?
The image on the page, the verbal icon, is different from the image in a painting or a cinematic image, or the thing in the field, or even the image in the brain. An image that has great power in stand-up comedy may fall flat in a poem. Description in writing is not just a servant of sensory impression, but a mode of characterization and a sometimes unwitting agent of metaphor. Ezra Pound said so many things about images that one can wonder about for a lifetime. “An emotional and an intellectual complex in an instant of time,” he wrote and, “The natural image is always the adequate symbol.”
The verbal image, I believe, points toward that gap between the things that we know and can bring into language and the stuff the deeper autonomous brain knows but does not share with the language making part of the brain. And in a much more abstract way, the poem itself is an image of language.
AMK: I have a special connection with “Refusing To Baptize A Son.” I wasn’t baptized, but my sister, born five years earlier than myself before my parents solidified their agnosticism, was. This separation between us has always bothered me a lot like the undercurrent of regret the father expresses to the unbaptized son in this poem.
A religious vein runs throughout Salvation Blues in poems like “Refusing,” “Life Of Sundays,” and “Decadence,” to name a few. Obviously, you were raised up around Christianity, particularly of the Protestant variety, but I wouldn’t say that religion is an overt presence in your work.
Do you find yourself thinking of religion/spirituality as a subject of poetry or does it emerge via the writing process?
RJ: When I was five, I remember asking my mother where God came from? As you know that’s a big question for southerners, where someone comes from. My mother told me that no one knew. She said that as long as I lived in her house, I would go to church twice on Sundays and also attend Wednesday night prayer meetings, and that I should listen, but it was important not just to go along with other people, that I would have to determine what I thought about God on my own.
She said that I should trust what I knew in my heart, and make up my own mind as an adult. Perhaps that is a freer attitude than most parents want to give their children, but I consider that freedom one of the greatest gifts of my life.
Religion seems neither a subject nor an element that arises as a part of the writing process, but a transcendent question. One of my favorite writers who deals with religion is Mark Twain. My baptism was probably reading hisLetters from Earth as a teenager. Another wonderful religious thinker is Wallace Stevens. “We say that God and the imagination are one,” he writes in “The Final Soliloquy of The Interior Paramour,” “How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
AMK: Many poets, it seems, find that the act of writing poetry brings them closer to faith. Does religion work this way for you as well?
RJ: I am not one of those poets. Certainly, some religious positions strike me as more illuminating than others as regards, for instance, the likely origins of our cosmos and our mortality. The less enlightened positions are characterized by pronouncements of faith, often in a story that depends upon aberrations of natural principles. The more enlightened positions respect both what can be known through scientific inquiry and observation and what cannot be known.
If you hold a gun to my head, I will agree with the less enlightened positions. If you offer me a drink, I will agree with some of the more enlightened positions. Otherwise, I would prefer to remain unbound, a free thinker. Religion is one area where it seems to me that the other living creatures on our planet have it over the humans. At the same time, I admire much poetry by people of more conventional faith-T.S. Eliot, Les Murray, Franz Wright, Andrew Hudgins, and I would add Neruda to that list because his Marxism must qualify as religion, and Adrienne Rich, whose feminism is a kind of faith-on and on.
That I like the dish that the Buddhist chef serves has nothing to do with my feeling about the Buddha.
AMK: You are a contemporary of my father. He turned 60 last year and was the first draftee in the state of Alabama granted COship on the basis of religious belief. Politics, particularly of war, (like religion) is an unavoidable subject/subtext of your work. But it’s not until the new poems of Salvation Blues that religion and politics overtly overlap in “Vision of the End of the World In The Valdosta Holiday Inn,” “The Language of Love” and “Postmodern Christianity.” Politics and religion actually share the same line in “Thanksgiving In The Late 50’s.”
RJ: Sometimes it occurs to me that, if I were a spy and wanted to send a message, a poem might be a good place to do that, so cold is this beloved media, so few its readers. At best, out of the seven billion people on the planet, a few thousand will read a poetry book, so I would not think poetry the wisest vehicle for dispensing political opinion.
And sometimes I look at political poetry, others and my own, and see it as a kind of pornography that arouses conviction in the already convinced. And I am guilty at times of that light empathy, that righteousness that I feel in watching news footage from a country whose name I cannot even spell and imagining that just watching is helping to rectify a horror. Yet I see the unwarranted deaths of 150,000 Iraqis and nearly 4,000 Americans and the maiming of thousands of others, all for political goals that have either never been articulated or that were ill conceived from the outset.
So many actions of our government have sickened me: the renditions, the tortures, the failure to protect the environment, the routine demonizations of foreigners. I have written several poems out of this outrage, not with any political outcome in mind, but because of the weight of those feelings, which continue.
AMK: Should we expect more political poetry from you in the future?
RJ: Will I write from those feelings again? Perhaps.
I was sitting with a group of poets this summer, and Robert Hass said, “What would have happened, if after the 9-11 bombings, President Bush had gone on television and said, ‘We forgive you.’?” While that might be a naive political question-If a candidate for president asked it, surely it would end the campaign-it seems essential that poets ask it.
AMK: Thank you