I’ve just finished Macnolia, a wonderful collection of thematic poems by A. Van Jordan. Van Jordan’s work is a discourse on gender and race in the context of the life of a woman named Macnolia Cox Montiere. Macnolia’s life was shaped irrevocably when she, an African-American girl, was wrongfully denied top prize at the 1936 Akron Spelling Bee. Van Jordan does a wonderful job of exorcising ghosts in an effort to resurrect history and pay homage to an extraordinary individual. Additionally, the structure of his poetry, some of which is experimental, makes many of his poems truly haunting—and their message about the importance of revealing truth entirely vital.
What do you attempt to achieve in your poetry?
Amity. I try to remind folks of what apples once tasted like, about the mundanity of those little details that are most organic and affirming to the solemnity of life—to do so without reliance on the motifs of romanticism or mysticism. All is nature after all. I try to convey an acuity that comes from my own sense of interconnectedness. In my youth, whilst trampling through farmers’ fields and woods filled with brooks and earthy skunk cabbage to abandoned orchards and where glade berries could be found—what wonderment. There is this thought that I’ve borrowed from Paul Bowles, and I think a valid one, about just how we often fail to appreciate that there are a finite number of sunsets and sunrises before us.
“To think, think, think” is a particularly useful piece of advice offered by Peter Oresick, a poet and publisher, an important fixture at Chatham University’s MFA program—a very kind and supportive man. Secondly, there’s a real gem given some time ago by a then young Diran Adebayo, an accomplished novelist from Britain; he said something to the effect that the best way—and I’m using polite language—to wallop the naysayers is to do good work and to focus on craft. To be honest, his example was an important one early on. I try to remember such advice in order to find spaces or entry points through which my audience might gain access to something, I think, substantial.
I write to remind myself that I am not alone. I write to pay back debts to those who’ve inspired me and in order to assist others in finding their place. There is a willingness to affirm what might seem commonplace, yes. Without a voice, however, one remains invisible and, thus, meaningless—and that is, of course, everything and so much still, regardless of what syllables are pronounced and in whatever form, but that without a voice, the felled tree, remains inarticulate. I write to flush out the movements of my own thinking and to trace the course of life’s designs with what’s a sturdy vehicle. As culture reproduces itself, I want to toss my own contagion into the mix. I do this in both my textual and visual poetry.
The most modern of poetic forms, with the possible exception of cinepoems, it is the incorporation of words, typography, and images in an effort to augment a particular intention towards what’s visually expressed. Two important forebears of visual poetry are Apollinaire, responsible for visual poems known as concrete poetry, and the American poet Kenneth Patchen, who constructed what he called “picture poems.” Indeed, visual poetry has taken off in the last few years, with more and more journals devoting space to such works. Two contemporary visual poets whose work I particularly admire are Oceano-based Karl Kempton and Budapest’s Márton Koppány. And, yes, I am but one of many up-and-coming visual poets on the international scene.
I’ve been living outside the U.S. for many years—and my self-imposed exile began in Prague. I’ve lived in disparate places, been enriched by varying models of community and cross-cultural experiences. The world is rich and its wisdom’s a good gauge for one who’s looking to learn something about being deferential. There may be a bit of existential homelessness somewhere in my makeup—and there certainly is an inexplicable yearning. I feel like a foreigner back in the U.S. I think it was John Lennon who penned the lines, “I wanted you, but you didn’t want me.”
Visiting the Himalayas in Northern Nepal a few years back: lush forests, exceptional trekking into remote areas, sparkling rocks and falls gushing torrents of “sweet water,” as it is called. At the time, Kathmandu was awash in violent demonstrations—storefronts on lock down, violent strikes, tires being burned and cars turned over, lots of angry demonstrations. In fact, my companion and I were pulled out of a taxi and threatened amid the chaos. The concept of struggle really was imprinted upon me and I realized then that I was not immune to those outside my immediate experience. While I may have been a traveler, or that is at least how I saw myself, I was perhaps little more than a tourist with a sense of entitlement—and, in fact, complicit in the Nepalese struggle; the area in which we stayed in Kathmandu was hemmed by slums. Later in that same trip, our bus crossing a pass into India, we would be held up by scarfed Maoist rebels.
It’s not so much that I am an angry poet. In fact, I think I gave up being angry some time ago. I’m matter-of-fact politically and, also, I think, sometimes a bit impatient. I believe in living my life with a sense of urgency and sharing what I’ve gleaned from the many unique experiences that I have had traveling around the globe. Finding myself in areas of turmoil, experiencing plenty of turmoil within my interior life, I want to live life robustly and substantially. For me, unhappiness is often a byproduct of stagnation and think there too many better reasons for living one’s life—among them intentionality. You know, in spite of what many people think, we don’t have enough meaningful conversations these days—do not dwell in enough philosophical locales.
Though I drink on the rare occasion, when I do what’s feral about me tends to come out—does so in ways that are often incomprehensible; it might be useful to consider the domesticated animal left to wander in a more competitive greater world. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and on the road that I began drinking, did so in great expatriate communities that have changed substantially. There’s little adventure these days and, I suppose, I’ve become a bit anachronistic. I am working on this, suspect it’ll be another ravine crossed and conquered with my colors thrust into ground.