Prose Feature: “Maybe the Poem Doesn’t Give a Shit: An Interview with Gary Jackson” by Emilia Phillips

December 20, 2013

Gary Jackson

Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, Gary Jackson is the author of the poetry collection Missing You, Metropolis, which received the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. He is featured on 2013’s “New American Poets” by the Poetry Society of America, and his poems have appeared in Callaloo, Tin House, 32 Poems, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. He’s also published in Shattered: The Asian-American Comics Anthology, and is the recipient of both a Cave Canem and Bread Loaf fellowship. Jackson currently teaches as an Assistant Professor at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC and at the low-residency MFA program at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. He has been a fierce lover of comics for over twenty years.

Emilia Phillips: William Carlos Williams wrote that a poem is a “complete little universe,” much like the comics which you write about. Missing You, Metropolis pairs seemingly autobiographical work with poems in the voice of or that follow comic book characters, especially those from the Marvel universe. But Williams followed up his statement with this one: “Any poem that has worth expresses the whole life of the poet.” How does the universe of the comic books express your life? How does it temper your own concerns?

Gary Jackson: Last weekend, after forgetting a conversation we had a friend’s house, my wife asked me, how is it you can forget so many things that just happened yesterday, but you can remember every little thing that happens in a comic? It’s a question I’ve faced before: I forget all kinds of shit, but for some reason, I can remember the details of a comic better than most other texts. I can’t say why this is the case. Perhaps it was my way of coping/dealing with the world—the losses I accumulated over those years—or the fact that as a 10-year-old, I would read these X-men comics (The Uncanny X-men, alongside The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, were among the very first comics I ever read) and immediately connected the dots between being a mutant, and being different and being black, and all these things I couldn’t explain started making sense to me. Was it T.S. Eliot who said poetry can communicate before it’s understood, or some shit like that, right? Well, comics did that for me, and for whatever reason they stuck with me, stick with me still. I’m not entirely sure why I still have boxes and boxes full of old comics in my closet that I’ll probably never read again but can’t bear to sell, why a panel of Spidey swinging out of his SoHo apartment with his arm in a sling is such a strong memory for me, why I’m still so goddamn attracted to that world of superheroes despite the varying quality of the writing (the 90s, yikes). But I wouldn’t say comics are the equivalent of my whole life (my ten-year-old self would feel betrayed); they just serve a pretty damn good vehicle for me to explore the usual suspects: sex, race, loss, death, navigating the world and my place in it. And I think that’s what comics have always done for the people who create them.

EP: “Listening to Plath in Poetics” ends with these keen lines:

                                          I would feed you a lie,

one of the little ones—the kind that turns
strangers to lovers, that turns words to poems.

I always tell my students that they can lie in poems, and they’re almost always shocked. They feel that they must tell the truth in poems because they have a sense of poetry as a exclusively confessional expression. Talk to me a little bit about how you see lies working to make poems.

GJ: I’m a fan of the lie. I’m a fan of memory too, but that’s because memory is so fallible and permeable to time: it’s the oldest, truest lie. And when it comes to lying, I’m doing it to make you feel something in a poem, even if the intended something gets lost in translation (going back to Eliot’s idea of communicating/understanding). Isn’t that the reason we lie to each other? Get sympathy, get attention, get laid, get understanding. And going back to students: many beginning writers seem to equate truth with this singular and absolute idea—and I’m always trying to move them away from absolutes. As if a poem has one truth, and if you don’t get that one truth then you’re wrong and your understanding of the poem is wrong. How limiting is that? During a class visit, a student addressed me and said something along the lines of “if the end of this poem is true, then I don’t like this speaker, he seems cold, like an ass” then another student chimed in and empathized with the speaker based on her take of what was going on in those final lines, so these two students went back and forth on these two different accounts that were both equally valid to the rest of us in the room. I love that.

EP: Man, that’s the best description of memory I’ve ever heard: “it’s the oldest, truest lie.” Mind if I quote you in all of my classes from here on out?

GJ: Haha! Not at all. Quote away.

EP: Does reading poetry reprogram one to think about memory differently? How so?

GJ: I’m hesitant to say reading poetry reprograms how we think of memory, but certainly reading any text, including poetry, that deals with history—whether it’s personal/familial/cultural/global/local history—should make us consider how memory changes things: what’s preserved, what’s cut away, what’s reconstructed for the benefit of the reader/listener, and if those revisions are premeditated, or the result of needing to fill the space with something that feels closest to the forgotten truth. The storyteller influences the story, and so I’m always trying different angles to get into the same poem. If we’re talking about family, I’m fortunate (or maybe not, if I’m using someone else’s voice as a crutch) to have the storyteller in front of me, the angle laid out for me. But if I’m working from scratch, I just gotta figure out how to construct the right voice to hit the right angle and get in there. And if it doesn’t work out, then I gotta start over.

I’ve got a weakness for memory, so I’m fascinated by it. Awed by those who have a damn-near perfect memory. Then again, they could be lying to me: how would I know? But that’s part of the fun: deciding what’s true, what’s the lie (intentional or otherwise), and if it matters.

EP: I’ve asked this question to a few other writers, but I’m fascinated to hear your answer because of your preoccupation with it. Have you ever written a poem that came from an autobiographical place but changed in details or scope in writing the poem that you suspect replaced the actual memory of the experience?

GJ: There’s no doubt that by writing a poem I’ve revised my own memory of what I’ve experienced. Chances are that I’m not aware when it’s even happening—after all, I reconstruct memories every time I have to tell the story to someone, much less commit to a version in writing. Though sometimes I get interested in the process of reconstruction—and I end up writing about how that happens. And other times I just straight-up lie. I remember struggling with a particular poem, and one of my professors just said why do you have so many people in this poem? Is it necessary to even have you AND Stuart and all these other figures in the same poem?! And, of course I said yes! Because that’s how the shit went down, and why not play with dual voices? Then I just conflated Stuart and myself into one figure and this composite character worked perfectly, and it trimmed all this shit that I realized I had incorporated in the poem, not for the benefit of the poem, but for my own benefit—because I was too busy reconstructing a memory instead of trying to write a good poem.

EP: I’ve had this happen in one of my poems as well. Did you feel freedom once you were able to allow those details to go? Also, did you find that those details—which are exposition, really—bogged down the rhythms in the poem? Did it affect the sound of poem? If so, how?

GJ: Sometimes I’m a fan of those details, until I’m not. But sure—once I let go of staying true to some past event, it’s freeing to get at what the poem wants to be about. When I read other folks’ work, and my own work, it’s easy to spot when those details get in the way of the rhythm, the tone, the prosody, interrupt the movement, the playful associative leaps. Maybe the poem doesn’t give a shit that it was an old oak desk that you were standing on. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the color of the wall was sea green, or that there were old leaking pipes in the southwest corner. Then again, those details might help get at something else the poem is trying to say, maybe that one detail is gonna explode the poem and suddenly you’re writing about those goddamn leaky pipes like nobody’s business. I remember reading old comics when publishers were finally able to mass-produce color and some of that stuff was extreme—bright yellow, bright red, bright blue, bright everything. We didn’t know how to contain all that color back then, didn’t need all of it arguing in every damn panel.

EP: How do you begin a poem? With a situation or with a sound? Would you walk us through, step-by-step as best you can remember, through a poem in the collection?

GJ: I almost always start with a moment, an action, a situation. (I cheated and just lumped all those together.) Sometimes an idea, but not often. Hardly ever a sound. I’m not dissing sound, but I tend to think in story, in narrative, which is limiting in its own ways—at least for now. So an action that has a lot of momentum speaks to me—gives me something to push the rest of the poem on its legs. And when it works, I stick with it, even if the end result—the finished poem—doesn’t have a trace of the original moment that propelled me to write it. I’m not talking about withholding; I’m talking about starting one place and then ending somewhere else. That’s poetry. You just move with it.

I’ll be honest, I’m not crazy about guiding a walkthrough for a poem—only because I don’t want to take away someone else’s take on the same poem (once someone explains it, then no one else bothers to explain it again, which is unfortunate, because I like your explanation more. It’s new, and hell, I already know mine). Also, since we’re speaking on memory, I don’t trust my own ability to recall process, because chances are I’ve revised it in my head, so all those things you thought I meant to do—I totally did, even though originally, I didn’t.

But how about this, I’ll give you a few brief explanations for how different poems in the collection began (that initial moment that propelled them):

In the title poem “Missing You, Metropolis” I thought about how cities in the DC Universe must think of their heroes as mascots of a sort. And if you’re used to Superman, how would you feel about Batman coming into town? In general, if you’re used to the extraordinary, how does the ordinary feel? (Note: I’ll take Batman over Superman any day, personally. Though if I had to choose a place to live, I ain’t living in Gotham).

In “Nightcrawler Buys a Woman a Drink” I simply thought of old X-men comics and how they always used to hang out at this bar called Harry’s Hideaway (I think that’s what it was called). It was the one place the X-men could hang out “in the normal world” and be treated just like everyone else. A lot of stories took place there, including my favorite issue—Uncanny X-men #183 (It’s AMAZING). Also, I thought superheroes have lives, including wanting to get laid, just like everyone else, and the X-men, more than most mainstream superhero comics at the time, seemed to hint at this more often than the other Marvel comics, which makes sense. Most of the other superheroes were either in committed relationships (Spidey, Fantastic Four, even Hulk), or the dynamics of the team didn’t lean too heavily towards recreation and downtime (The Avengers, with the notable exceptions of Iron Man and Hawkeye). But the X-men, all those single good-looking 20-30 somethings living in a big-ass mansion? Ripe for fun. Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and Colossus seemed to always go out to Harry’s to decompress after some superheroing. (They didn’t really ALWAYS go out in the comics, but I read between the lines, panels, whatever).

In “Saturday Mornings with Andrea True,” I remember finding my friend’s old porno tapes (after he died) in his room. And many of those tapes, I used to have myself (more accurately, my great-grandfather used to have). His aunt had left his room just as he lived in it, and she was the one who pointed those tapes out to me, and seemed very uncomfortable by the fact (being a good Christian woman), but also reluctant to get rid of them. I offered to toss them out. She accepted. So I did.

I think these poems all spun out of these moments, but then ended up accumulating more ideas and layers as I started drafting them (and those other deeper meanings: otherness, objectification, the bleed between fantasy and reality, were probably simultaneously working on me when I started those initial drafts). And I’m a draft writer through-and-through: I’ll throw whatever on the page, and start working from there.

EP: Your take by far outdid the question! Thanks for these stories about the inciting moment. Thinking about objectification, I can’t help but think about how experience itself becomes an object when it’s translated into a poem. It’s both a vehicle for ideas and, via the page, an object. What do you think about this? You said you don’t usually start with sound, that you don’t usually begin with sound. How much do you think about the visual aspect of the poem, its thingness?

GJ: When I think thingness, I’m thinking of the poem’s ability to stand on its own. To do what it can without anyone or anything else near it: if it were found in the middle of the street and someone picked it up and read it—that’s thingness. I want all those poems to stand on their own. I don’t know if they all do, truthfully, and maybe not all poems need to. Maybe by thinking that a poem HAS to stand on its own is just as limiting as not starting a poem with sound. But that’s my problem, those are the avenues I cut myself off from without meaning to. So I gotta remember to walk those avenues every once in a while too, see what else I’m missing. But back to thingness: in general, I try to encourage my students to respect the poem’s thingness. Some of them have a hard time. Some of them want to be on your shoulder and tell you all the things that the poem didn’t tell you. You have to experience what they experienced before you can appreciate the poem. You have to watch all the movies they watched before you can read the poem. You have to live where they lived, eat what they ate. They like poems as a dessert instead of as a meal. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, unless that’s the only thing you know how to make.

When I’m thinking visual aspect, I’m thinking image—not just the way the poem looks on the page, but how it looks to a reader—what are they seeing? How do they see the poem? Are they seeing what I’m seeing? Something better? Something worse? And seeing isn’t even that accurate; sensing then? Is it quiet, loud, open, private, soft, full of explosions, full of Kansas, full of people, empty of people, full of place, full of nothing. I’m cheating, using synesthesia, but still.

Keith Ekiss*: As a poet who teaches (if you teach), how do you think about what you want your students to read? Is there still a canon? Should students embrace, question, or ignore the literature of the past? Is there a ‘we’ to which poetry speaks or do different literatures speak to different people?

GJ: I tend to show my students a lot of contemporary poetry (which is just another way of needlessly categorizing things, which we love to do), primarily because most students in my intro poetry courses have some experience with 19th  and early 20th century poets—whether it’s through other literature courses, history courses, high school classes, wherever—and many times their view of poetry is rooted in the idea, that there is a singular type of poetry with a singular call and response: you don’t respond the proper way, then you fucked up the call. You got the poem WRONG. So whenever we read Shakespeare or even Eliot or Dickinson, they start getting too comfortable—like they already know all the answers: as if a poem is a quiz. But then I throw them a Terrance Hayes poem, a Natalie Diaz poem, a Dana Levin, an Ai, and they start shaking those poems down, start tinkering around, start asking questions or saying things like this poem doesn’t rhyme, so how is this a poem? This poem doesn’t have punctuation! This poem has too much punctuation! This poem is talking about somebody important that I’m not familiar with—how am I supposed to get it? This poem has meth, has weed, has fucking in it?! WHAT!? And for the student who is used to those poems, I’ll show them something different, show them Auden, Hughes, Brooks, Bishop, go back to Eliot, to Dickinson, whoever I can show students to shake up their still formative view of what poetry is/should be/can be. Try this poem. Try this one on. What about this one? You don’t like it? Why not? You do like it? Good. Read another one. Write something.

EP: Now, Gary, provide me with a question to ask the next interviewee.

GJ: When I read interviews I always want to know something that doesn’t directly deal with poetry in the poet’s life. So give us something else that contributes to your understanding/navigation of the world you live in, besides writing poetry, besides writing, period. What else do you do, do you share a passion for that may inform your work, but not directly tied into your work as a poet? Besides writing, what’s another act that keeps you sane (or insane, if that’s your pleasure) in the world?

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013), the prose editor of 32 Poems, and the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

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