What I’m Reading

I’m in the middle of two poetry collections right now: Rodney Jones’s sharp new book, Imaginary Logic, and Iain Haley Pollock’s powerful debut, Spit Back a Boy.

The two books have more in common than you might think given that Rodney’s been writing poems longer than Iain’s been alive. Both poets craft lines with great amounts of kinetics and music. They are both very considerate storytellers as well, sharing truths and half-truths like a bottle in a paper bag.

I’m amazed by what Rodney is doing in Imaginary Logic. He is one of the finest narrative poets we have in America, but in this book, he frustrates the narrative with lyric imagery. He redirects the poems, cuts off the stories, and settles into lush imagistic meditations. It’s a beautiful and completely surprising collection.

Iain’s collection is full of stories that are marked by their urgency. The poems are graceful, infused with literature, history, visual art, and gunshots. Every narrative in the book feels like it needed to be written. Those are the best stories: the ones that beg to be told. I’m going to be coming back to this collection for a while.

On Inspiration

In every series of poems or extended project I’ve worked on besides my most recent, The Big Smoke, the poems are a function of an ongoing conversation in my head about the relationships between music and poetry. Readers of poetry have a different set of needs than readers of fiction or non-fiction. In many ways, music is a conduit to, or maybe a fulfiller of, those needs because music is the art that connects most directly with emotions and memory. In that way, music becomes an irrefutable requirement for a poem, a requirement that gets fulfilled through the poet’s choices of language, story, and syntax.

Even in my favorite narrative poems like “Those Winter Sundays” or “The Colonel,” it’s as if the music is the background, like in a movie, while the story is in the forefront. The choice is made to put the story in the foreground. In lyric poetry, the mode functions as an emulation of or an approximation of music through image and meditation. So sounds become paramount, like in some of Yeats’s poems or one of my all-time favorites, “We Real Cool.”

Of course, there are many poets who do both. Yusef Komunyakaa’s poems—you can’t call them narrative, you can’t call them lyric. They’re both in this amazing, cohesive way. I wish I had the aptitude to do that kind of thing. It gives me something to write toward: making a poem into a song without losing the poem-ness. Once I figure out how to create that hybrid, you’ll find me in the back booth, counting my ringtone royalty checks.

Beyond music’s continuous influence, each group of poems I write has different inspirations that come directly from poetry. When I was working on The Devil’s Garden, I read a lot of Major Jackson and Sean Singer. They both navigate music in ways I wanted to capture, but they each use different techniques. Back then, Major was working in a narrative mode and Sean in a more lyric one. But their work is more complicated than that. Both poets live in music. They both inspired and spun me out as I tried to borrow their techniques for my work.

When I was working on Mixology, I was reading Terrance Hayes and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. I wanted to mix some of the expansive imaginary in Terrance’s poems into my own writing. I also admire the way he gives himself permission to use whatever he chooses in a poem. I tried to co-opt Lyrae’s consideration of the line and the masterful, always surprising ways she works images. You can see their combined influences in my poems like “Seven Days of Falling” and “Language Mixology.”

The poems from my most recent work, The Big Smoke, are all research-based, so I was reading a different set of poets: A. Van Jordan and Marilyn NelsonMarilyn’s A Wreath for Emmett Till helped me understand how poetry and history work together, how one can inform and enhance the other. The fact that her poem is a heroic crown of sonnets makes it even more inspiring. And A. Van’s collection, MacNolia, inspired me to write a more expansive kind of poem, dialoguing with history and the poetic tradition, kind of like British poets seem to. I’m thinking of Philip Larkin and how he both respected and re-imagined what a British poem could be. There’s a whole other universe of dialogue, of how to dialogue in Van’s work that I wanted to emulate.

The one constant in all my projects is my wife, Stacey Lynn Brown. I’m constantly amazed by her ability to weave full-on stories without muddling the clarity of imagistic moments. Her book, Cradle Song, is a book-length poem that was almost exclusively narrative. We have very different agendas poetically and I think that helps me. In a sense, we’re lucky those differences complement each other—we don’t fight for the same air. But she is a better writer than me, so if we were going head to head, I would lose.

On Influences

If there is one way to describe the position of the poet, I think it’s their posture in the world of non-poets. For example, one poet I really admire, Sean Singer, got his MFA at Washington University in St. Louis and shortly after won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for his terrific book, Discography. But none of that tells the story. Sean is a poet. When you meet him, you might not immediately recognize that that’s what he is, but you know he’s an artist—and not the flaky, posing kind of artist. He’s on some other kind of plane of the imaginary that’s different from the rest of us. It’s an intense space and it manifests in his work, his dedication to poetry. The combination of that intensity and his depth of his work are his posture in the world.

Then there is Gaby [Gabrielle Calvocoressi], another poet who I have a lot of love for. She is an incredible writer and thinker and she has different postures. She has her graceful mode, her social mode, and then I imagine she switches into her writing mode. Or maybe there is no switch. But she has a certain, multifaceted posture that recognizes the conjunction between craft and audience, if that makes sense. She read for the River Styx Reading Series not long ago and gave so much to the audience that, as soon as she finished reading, people were asking us to bring her back next season. That never happens.

What I’m saying is the way people intuit the world and how they position themselves in that world helps them see things differently, and write unique poems. I’ve always been envious of that kind of vision. I’m envious of Sean for being so intensely imaginative. I’m envious of Gaby for being so graciously imaginative. I think there’s something to be learned about how we position ourselves, how we put ourselves in different angles related to the word, in different postures related to the world.

One of my agendas is to write poems that try to create a kind of dialogue. Without realizing it, maybe even before we’d read each other’s work, Gaby and I were in a poetic dialogue inside of our texts. I mean, our poems were speaking to each other. The first time I heard her read was at a celebration of the From the Fishouse anthology with my wife and Gabriel Fried. As soon as she started reading, I was like, Wow! You and I are on the same stuff. We were writing different poems, with different strategies and different moments, but we were working in the same space.

I feel the same way about Sean. The big difference is he and I have been bouncing verbs off each other since 1993. We were undergrads together at Indiana University. So essentially, the entire time I’ve been writing poems, I’ve been both humbled and motivated by Sean’s work.

I’ve been in conversation with Terrance’s book, Wind in a Box, since it came out. I instantly felt connected to those poems and the aesthetic dialogue emanating from inside them. Questions of voice, persona, identity—they’re all a big part of what I try to do.

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is another. I feel like she has one end of the coffee can and I’ve got the other and we’re talking even if we’re not. There’s a certain kind of poetic call and response to our work.

On Performance

Who was it—Wordsworth?—who said, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” There are great differences between reading somebody’s work and seeing them read it. When you read a text, there’s not that synthesis; you’re missing one part of the conversation—an engagement, a dialogue that is in and of itself a reaction to the text.

At least that’s what you get with good readers, the ones who are actually engaged in the moment with the material. Recently, one of my friends made the point that readers forget a poetry reading isn’t just a “reading.” It’s a recitation. You present the poem and the presentation of it reveals both something about the poem and the person presenting it. I like that part of the dialogue. I love to hear people read their poems and I’ve seen some unbelievable moments at poetry readings … I’ve also had to drink a lot of coffee to stay awake for others.

One of the most memorable readings I’ve experienced was hearing Ed Roberson, whose work I wasn’t familiar with at the time. He got up there with a stack of books—seven or eight of his own—with all these yellow and pink Post-it notes sticking out of them. After he thanked the audience, he just started reading. He would read part of a poem and then moved to a different page. He read more of another poem and then moved to a different book and read another poem. He never read the titles; he just wove together this long dialogue between his books. Essentially, he created a new poem and it was pretty fantastic. I still don’t understand how he made it work, but he clearly knew what he was doing and what he intended. Now that—that is posture. Getting up and doing that kind of thing is a whole different kind of vision of what a poem can be.

Being the Last Man Standing

When I started working on The Big Smoke, I felt radical for trying to write in somebody else’s voice. Some of the poets I read seem very comfortable slipping in and out of persona, but I’d never really thought about it. When I’m writing, I hear words the way I hear them and I use language the way I use language. So for me, attempting persona was a big deal.

Writing in the voice of Jack Johnson, I found myself wanting to use a lot of language and linguistic constructions he wouldn’t have used. More modern language, I guess. It was difficult to take myself out of the poem’s conversation. Combine that with the fact that there are only two primary documentations of Jack Johnson’s voice: racist newspaper accounts that frequently rendered his voice as a kind of a Buckwheat character, and these biographies ghost-written by French writers and translated into English where he comes off sounding like a Classics professor.

In reality, he was somewhere in the middle. You hear it in the few recordings of him that still exist. He was an incredibly erudite, self-educated person whose favorite author was Shakespeare. But in the circles he ran in, he had to be adept at code switching. I had to find a way to voice him authentically—if such a thing is possible—and to take myself out of the equitation linguistically. So I triangulated his voice from the recordings and texts, trying to figure out where his language would actually reside.

One of the things I was constantly astounded by was the stakes Johnson was fighting for. Teddy Roosevelt, who was the President of the United States when Johnson was champion, the author Jack London, and most of the prizefighting world—they were all terrified that Johnson’s victories would lead to racial conflict in America. As if it didn’t already exist. Johnson became champion in 1908, just 12 years after Plessy v. Ferguson. That’s the part that keeps tripping me out. These folks were playing it as if everything was OK, then Johnson wins the championship and all of the sudden race relations got bad. As if all of this conflict wasn’t just simmering.

Johnson became the focal point because of his successes. And he wasn’t a race man. He didn’t care about being a beacon for equality. He was mainly concerned with himself. He would have fit in nicely with contemporary athletes. He was like, “I want to be the heavyweight champion of the world. I’m not trying to be the next Booker T. Washington.” And that’s why Booker T. Washington couldn’t stand him. Washington thought Johnson was the exact opposite of what a black man needed to be to in order to survive.

Favorite Line of Poetry—Ever.

I had a hard time coming up with my favorite line because almost all of the lines I love are intimately and inextricably connected to other lines in the poem, as in Hayden’s “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Or Eliot’s “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” One part of the movement doesn’t work without the other. I guess that linguistic dependence is one of the points of poetry, right?

For a single line of poetry, I have to go with Langston Hughes: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” The line resonates for me on many levels. I found “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” right after high school and it was the first poem I encountered that felt like it was meant for me.

The poem has a different resonance now. I live right outside of St. Louis and as the story goes, Hughes wrote the poem while on a train crossing the Mississippi here. He was only 18—18!—when he wrote it. Now, I think Hughes’s refrain expresses a wonderful kind of transformation that is possible from reading poetry.

Words for Aspiring Poets

A professor once told me that a successful poet makes enough money from writing poetry to keep a stock of typewriter ribbon. His point: poets aren’t going to get paid; they’re not going find themselves as best-sellers with their picture on the side of a bus. They’re doing a thing that is valuable and communicative because they enjoy doing it. I mean, writing poems is very difficult. It’s a grind. But as hard as it is, there are few things I would rather be doing than writing a poem. Maybe that’s how it should be for someone who writes poetry. You have to find that thing inside of the poem that makes writing it worthwhile, even without external validation.