An Interview with A. Van Jordan
This spring, prior to publication of his new chapbook, The Homesteader (Unicorn Press 2013), I emailed back and forth with A. Van Jordan. In preparation for the interview I read both Jordan’s new collection, and two of his previous collections Quantum Lyrics and MACNOLIA. What I enjoy most in Jordan’s work is how he stitches a collection together narratively and historically. There is a real sensitivity in his work to constructing character in ways that connect. He makes people and their stories feel real, and relatable. I asked several craft questions related to his recently released work about the life and times of Oscar Micheaux and we ended up having an interesting discussion about the emotional center of creative work.
A. VAN JORDAN is the author of four collections: Rise, which won the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award (Tia Chucha Press, 2001); M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, (2005), which was listed as one the Best Books of 2005 by The London Times; Quantum Lyrics, (2007); and The Cineaste, (2013), W.W. Norton & Co. His chapbook, The Homesteader, was released by Unicorn Press in 2013. Jordan has been awarded a Whiting Writers Award, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He is a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and a United States Artists Williams Fellowship. He is a Professor in the Dept. of English at the University of Michigan, and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
JP: There is no trace of autobiography that I can find in your new collection, The Homesteader, yet I felt the urge to look between the lines to see a correlation between yourself and Micheaux as artists. Did you feel a kinship to Micheaux, or was this purely a project where you wanted to put the personal aside to let history and biography take center stage?
AVJ: To answer your initial question, I think everything I write has a trace of biography—an emotional bio, if nothing else—in it.
JP: I wonder if you’d discuss how “everything I write has an emotional biography,” which I think is related to the term you use, “emotional center.” I’m intrigued by the unique terminology and language poets use when speaking of their work, from Frost’s “sound of sense” to O’Hara’s “personism.” Can you talk a bit more about what “emotional center” means for you in your writing? Also, when reading another poet“s work, do you always seek to identify an emotional center or biography? Is this part of the pleasure of reading and writing? And, if the center is missing, is the poem somehow a failure?
AVJ: I’m most attracted to poems that have high stakes around vulnerability and emotional transparency. I love speakers who struggle with what to say, those speakers who pose questions as much as they, through the transparency of the struggle, answer them. I’m a big fan of the poems of Cornelius Eady for this reason. I mention him not because he’s the only poet doing this work, but I remember, early in this journey/process of becoming a poet, trying to figure out what it was that I was so attracted to in his work. And that was the thing that I realized I was moved by: the emotional center of the poems-—that point at which we realize the speaker has revealed something that is not easy to reveal to others. It breaks my heart every time. I see this in Marie Howe’s poems a lot, and I remember spending a great deal of time pouring over those long lines and sentences in Larry Levis’s poems, too. I’d rather that a poem take a chance at being sentimental by attempting to be emotionally vulnerable, than for the poem to feel cold and distant. I can get distant objectivity from the morning paper. I come to poems for the risk taking, the risk taking that most of us don’t give ourselves permission to take in our daily lives.
JP: Oscar Micheaux is an interesting historical character from both social and personal perspectives. How and why did you become interested in writing about him?
AVJ: I think he serves as a good model for the contemporary artist: Micheaux represents that friction point between being an artist and being a student of an artistic craft. He began making film when it was still a fairly new art form. In the states, Birth of a Nation had just come out in 1915; Micheaux’s “The Homesteader” came out in 1919. Griffith had made many short films and even features before, but Micheaux was writing novels, farming and homesteading in South Dakota before making an eight-reel film. That’s pretty unprecedented. He wasn’t afraid of failure. If you’re going to be an artist of any kind, you need that level of fearlessness around failure. And he failed plenty, but he also managed to make some beautiful films between the failures.
JP: When you began conceiving your The Homesteader project, was there much biography available on Oscar Micheaux and the cast of characters that accompany him throughout the collection? Was the research daunting in any respect?
AVJ: Finding the emotional center of a subject is always daunting, whether the subject is well known or not. In a way, having so much research available was more daunting than having a subject who was more obscure. Michaeux is a bit of a cottage industry in film studies. Fortunately for me, there were many scholars—Pearl Bowser, Ronald Greene, Thomas Cripps and others—who have written extensively on him. Also, there’s a wonderful Oscar Micheaux film festival in Gregory, SD. I traveled to his homestead there, and met with scholars from around the country. I'm more interested in the cultural materialism around the time and the emotional resonance of a scene. Once I get the facts down, I can hang the emotion on the facts around place and time. The iconography of it all just becomes a restriction, like a form, from which I can then create language.
JP: Were there aspects of remaining historically accurate that conflicted with you exercising your poetic voice or imagination fully?
AVJ: Not so much. I take the Aristotelian aphorism to heart: it doesn’t matter if it happened; it only matters if it could happen. I made up composite characters, names of locations, situations, etc. The only element that really controls the poetic voice for me is emotion. Once I approximate the emotion, I then fill in the facts—not the other way around.
JP: You’ve mentioned how the iconography of Micheaux was a kind of restriction, a form, which leads me to asking about your use of the sonnet; its power and limitation must have already been obvious to you based on your previous use of the form in MACNOLIA and Quantum Lyrics. How did the sonnet affect how you wrote this collection and was the form a necessary part of the structure for telling Micheaux’s story?
AVJ: I find the sonnet to be an incredibly flexible form in the 21st Century, so I enjoy trying my hand at it. It’s really as simple as that. I think every art form needs some restriction or pattern to either work within or to push against. Form, in general, is a good thing. I don’t mean to sound New Age-y or even, on the other end of the spectrum, Draconian, but we can't escape form in our lives and in our making of art. I talk to other artists about “pushing form” and “extending form within a tradition,” but I only talk to poets—mostly my students, though—about resisting it all together...acting as if it doesn’t exist, which is like imagining a life without gravity or time or any other natural phenomenon. It’s really pretty impossible. I don’t care if we’re talking about something as general as the fractal patterns of a branching tree or something as specific as a classic like Debussy’s “Reverie” arranged by jazz trombonist Melba Liston as “My Reverie” for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, it’s all built through an application of form. Why not write in a sonnet?
Yes, to answer your question, the sonnet’s internal organs are made up of rhetorical devices, which lend themselves to the creation of both voice and tone. How can I resist, at least, some shadow of what happens in a sonnet when I’m trying to render a persona? It's all an experiment, but sometimes it just comes together.