Interview with Poet Jerry Williams "Gamblin' Man"
Recently, I sat down to begin an e-mail exchange with Jerry Williams. His latest works include a collection of poetry entitled Admission (Carnegie Mellon, 2010) as well as the highly successful anthology It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Poetry of Breakup (Overlook Press, 2009), newly available in paperback. Just as Williams wears many hats beside that of poet—anthologist, essayist, and director of Marymount Manhattan College’s burgeoning Creative Writing program—so too are readers invited to discover the contemporary American lyric in all of its oddball, personal, and inevitably political resonances. One thing’s for sure, Williams’s humor and erudition distinguish his happily cantankerous voice, as seen in the following interview and throughout his poems which quietly, though stubbornly, defy categorization.
Adam Fitzgerald (Rail): What’s in a title? Looking back on your first book, Casino of the Sun, and your recent anthology of breakup poems, It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Poetry of Breakup, it seems there’s quite a lot. Yet the title of your most recent book Admission, is surprisingly open-ended. Of course, in the context of poetry one can’t help thinking immediately of confessionalism, à la Lowell and Plath & co., the idea that the poem is a confessional box where the poet is both penitent and confessor, sinner and absolver, with the reader overhearing private haunts and psychic minutiae of lived, recorded experience. You play with this tradition overtly in the tongue-and-cheek “Confessions of a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poet.” Could you speak to these traditions, their importance to you in your work and in this book particularly?
Jerry Williams: The confessional poets, specifically Sylvia Plath and John Berryman, have influenced my work more than any other group of writers. All those burlap sacks, all that blood, that chicken paprika, all those anti-hopes—they set my eyes on fire. Lest we forget, the term “confessional poetry” first emerged in M.L. Rosenthal’s review of Lowell’s Life Studies, which he called “rather shameful.” He meant the term as an insult. However, he had borrowed a word from religion and, atheist that I believe I am, I see the truth in the comparison. Over the long haul, poets have tried to convince people that their work is spiritual in nature. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that just about every primary religious text ever written comes at us in the language of poetry. Ultimately, Lowell and Plath & co. turned Rosenthal on his head; therefore, I am disturbed by the fact that certain contemporary poet-critics, those Mark Halliday claims are infected by ICFU (Instant Contempt For the Understandable), have re-injected Rosenthal’s expression with a dose of the pejorative. At this point, I should squeeze a quotation out of my bookshelves, something Robert Philips wrote in The Confessional Poets that stipulates the salient characteristics of confessional poetry:
It is highly subjective. It is an expression of a personality, not an escape from it. It is therapeutic and/or purgative. Its emotional content is personal rather than impersonal. It is most often narrative. It portrays unbalanced, afflicted, or alienated protagonists. It employs irony and understatement for detachment. It uses the self as a poetic symbol around which is woven a personal mythology. There are no barriers of subject matter. There are no barriers between the reader and the poet. The poetry is written in the open language of ordinary speech. It is written in open forms. It displays moral courage. It is anti-establishment in content, with alienation a common theme. Personal failure is also a favorite theme, as is mental illness. The poet strives for personalization rather than for universalization.
That doesn’t sound half bad. I hope my own poetry has taken the bait, but I also fear that readers and other poets and grant committees and judges of prizes dismiss my work as merely “post-confessional.” Speaking of which, I just now re-read “Confessions of a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poet” and my immediate reaction is that it’s kind of mean. But I still think it’s funny. At the time, I was writing a lot of lists—probably too many—because I was having a hard time finding my way into a poem. This particular piece started out as an indictment of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and its fluttery spawn: poetry as defense mechanism, poetry as empty calories ladled out by word morticians and pretenders to oppression. I felt (and still feel) clarity and unhinged passion being crowded out of American poetry. So I imagined a poet who wrote sanctioned nonsense and said to myself, “Let’s make him confess?” I suppose the piece is a dramatic monologue née persona poem that represents a certain viewpoint via hyperbole and extreme verbal irony. Incidentally, I wish I had the courage to write down thoughts that do not arise out of crisis—a quality I admire in the aforementioned spawn. Then again, consider what Antonin Artaud said in “No More Masterpieces”: “This idea of a detached art, of poetry as a charm which exists only to distract our leisure, is a decadent idea and an unmistakable symptom of our power to castrate.” My aesthetic stance seems to involve composing every poem as if it were my last. It’s a problem.
RAIL: What’s so gripping in this latest collection, Admission, is that it doesn’t so much contradict as amplify those 20th-century poetics of self-revelation onto global, political scales. I wonder to what degree you’re interested, as a poet, in both confessing (in the literal sense) and fabricating (artistically, inventively) simultaneously? How important is it for the poet’s inner life to be representative as well as answer for the culture, even the dirty laundry of the world at large?
WILLIAMS: Yes, the George W. Bush years proved pretty wearisome for a lot of people. A number of the poems in Admission—namely “Flying United,” “Jimmy Huber’s Jeremiad,” and “A New Doctrine”—originated from a deep-seated resentment and anger that I lived with on a daily basis. I could not believe what I saw happening in the United States and around the world. The Bush II era made the Reagan presidency feel like a spa treatment. I devoutly consumed the prophecy of The Nation which made dealing with those eight years even more unbearable, given that awareness sometimes equals pain (coincidentally, M.L. Rosenthal’s scathing review of Life Studies first appeared in The Nation in 1959). And I do acknowledge the conflation of self-revelation and ranting response to the global political milieu in Admission. Furthermore, confession and fabrication are an inseparable modus operandi for me. It’s like what Cary Grant says at the beginning of North by Northwest: “There’s no such thing as a lie; there’s only the expedient exaggeration.” And whenever I take on global political material I often utilize irony and extended metaphor, but people still get pissed off. In 2004, “Jimmy Huber’s Jeremiad” appeared in Pleiades, one of my all-time favorite literary magazines. A few months later, the poem earned itself a bizarre, self-righteous, post-9/11ist right-wing e-mail attack—sent directly to me—from a pretty well-known New York novelist. The guy kept insisting that he was a liberal with a refined sense of humor, but that Jimmy had simply gone too far. To borrow Winston Churchill’s coinage, I really can’t stand sheep in sheep’s clothing.
RAIL: Take the book’s opener, a charming, nightmarish poem called “Unadorned.” You pretty quickly situate these revelations of self to beloved—imagined? real?—by juxtaposing seemingly everyday preoccupations (song lyrics, exercising, shopping) with larger realities and menacing, stranger-than-fiction feeling (the murder rate in Denmark, Texaco oil drilling, the Russian Revolution). This and other poems strike me therefore as hard to place, in the best sense. “Who” is the voice behind them?
WILLIAMS: You’re not the first person to ask about a hard-to-place voice in my poems. I can fish around for an answer because sometimes the voice sounds weird to me, too. I try to start out with the personal yet I resist the temptation to stop at the checkpoint of mere self-reflexivity. I try to go so far down-consciousness that I create a kind of authentically fictionalized über-self to stand next to and comment on and learn from and maybe even repair. The confessional or personal poet objectifies the “I.” In the beginning, he needs to get rather narcissistic since the self has an instinctive structure. The more honest the poet and the more he surrenders to the accidents and fine distinctions of incident, the more accurate a poetic structure he will unpack. But the honesty doesn’t always have to be based on fact. Thus no other school of poetry possesses such high expectations for originality. Nothing is more embarrassing than listening to a writer artlessly reveal intimate details about his life. To continue, as the personal poet moves beyond narcissism and approaches a measure of success—with regards to process—he begins, paradoxically, to experience his self as if it were an external object—both real and imagined. He has projected himself into three-dimensional space. The poet has become, simultaneously, subject and object. Participation in this technique can obliterate human isolation and anxiety, and the act itself presents a possible escape from the limitations of selfhood and from the necessity of judging and being judged by others. I hope the heightened language in “Unadorned” amalgamates truth and falsehood, good and not-so-good, colloquialism and absurdity—as when the narrator, midway through the poem, survives a “major stork attack at the free clinic.” In other words, he had accompanied his girlfriend to an abortion. The narrator of “Unadorned” sure has a peculiar way of saying things.
RAIL: The Americanness of this book is palpable—and not just the abstract postcard version of fast cars, highways, malls, fast food, and fries. The book bathes in these themes of ours—our two wars, our culture of sex and corporatization—that I imagine readers will both immediately recognize and be startled by. The poems admit specificity into play, proper names and places, e.g., United Airlines, the Pentagon, SUVs, Navy Seals, “Guantanamo Insomnia,” The Tonight Show, benzodiazepines, oncology, NASCAR. I wonder at what point these signifiers and markers of the time are part of just opening up the unconscious of the poem’s speaker—the nation’s unconscious?—to poetic play? Or did there come a point, early or late, in assembling the book where it was less dream-catching than deliberate, satirical “product placement”? How willful are these inescapable topicalities as part of your imagination’s fabric?
WILLIAMS: One of my former students, photographer Alina Holladay-Young, asked to first read the manuscript before taking a few snaps for the cover. Apparently, the poem “Imaginary Family Vacation” inspired the photo. A rusty Chevy Nova with Ohio license plates pulls up in the second stanza and, if memory serves, Alina’s “Orange Car” is a Nova, an automobile named after a star that peaks and then burns out. Sort of like the land of the free and the home of the brave. After 2001, the dictionary definition of America started changing. We seem to have no sense of who we are anymore—unless dazed mugging victim counts as an identity. Admission walks alongside a pretty rough patch in our history, and I think those “signifiers and markers” offer a succession of evacuation centers in which to hole up during a continuing socio-political hurricane. In assembling the book, I would say that I did plan the synchronicity of ideas and images, but chance and “poetic play” affect the text as well. Furthermore, I’m always telling students to admit more proper nouns and phrases into their work—for sound and authenticity’s sake—so I try to practice what I preach. That said, I looked at the items you mention in your question and I see more product displacement than product placement. When a proper noun or phrase enters the fray, a high level of incongruity and acridity ensues. Again, my narrators sure have a peculiar way of saying things.
RAIL: I’m interested in how these poems bristle and intimate the absurd. The book begins with the line “I let a dog in the park lick my face for you” and ends with a poem hilariously entitled “Bed, Bath, and Beyond.” The reader realizes, soon enough, that something ominous is afoot. It’s a gesture I love in Bob Dylan and John Ashbery, lacing the hallucinogenic pleasures of art with these eerie and social hyper-realities. Dylan’s “Jokerman”: “Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face.” Ashbery’s “And the Stars Were Shining”: “It was the solstice, and it was jumping on you like a friendly dog.” What artists or models do you draw from, I wonder, if I’m rightly detecting this mixture of the everyday and the fantastical in your work? Is it a preoccupation?
WILLIAMS: Probably, I will provide a longer answer than necessary, but here goes: The first poem I ever remember being just blown away by in high school was Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” an incredibly mournful, nautical, pacifist, nihilistic love poem—of course, I couldn’t come up with the language to ascribe such qualities then. However, I must have recognized the poem’s multiple layers, despite the surface simplicity. That’s the kind of writing I like—simple on the top with absurd, complicated, obliquely entwined layers below. My first poetry professor, Herbert Woodward Martin, at the University of Dayton, where I went to school for a few years, was a Paul Laurence Dunbar scholar, and he performed amazing recitations of the poems on Dunbar’s birthday every year. Listening to Dr. Martin practically sing those poems seriously affected my ideas about dignity and oratory. Keats’s was the first poet biography I read, then Dylan Thomas (nearly everyone seems to go through a Dylan Thomas phase). I feel a closer affinity to William Carlos Williams’s colloquial modernism than to Eliot’s high modernism. The French Surrealists, mainly Arp and Apollonaire, helped activate my imagination and trained all my senses to stand at attention. I read the cover off Michael Benedikt’s anthology, The Poetry of Surrealism. The writing burrowed into my flesh. I tend to model Elizabeth Bishop’s accentual verse and her simple, grammatically-based line breaks. I find Charles Baudelaire’s poems to be sad and exhilarating at the same time, a combination that has profoundly influenced my own writing, keeping my work from sounding too overtly whiney and complaining, though I must point out that Andrew Marvell used the word “complain” to mean “write love songs” in “To His Coy Mistress.” I think I have inherited James Wright’s straightforwardness, his appreciation of roots and the commitment to story and monologue. I prefer Allen Ginsberg’s humor to Ogden Nash’s. I went to the University of Arizona to study with Richard Shelton and Steve Orlen back in that program’s erstwhile heyday. I’d say my favorite poet at the moment is either Denis Johnson or Tony Hoagland or Ai.
The poets I admire rant and rage. They can barely manage to contain their exuberance, their disenfranchisement, their association with various “isms,” their love, their moral outrage, their addiction to language, their need to shriek, their solipsism, their humor(s), their pleasure, and their pain. But they do manage, and what ends up on the page vibrates across time and space. These poets have something they need to say, and they say it in an innovative yet lucid manner because they desperately want to communicate. Their poems can best be described as breathless, scornful, socially-conscious, bold, self-limiting, self-aggrandizing, apocalyptic, funny, hyperbolic, risky, antagonistic, aggressive, ironic, anaphoristic, apostrophic, vivid, despairing, triumphant, testimonial, collectively-voiced, individualistically-voiced, transforming, morally just, morally questionable, courageous, blasphemous, investigative, and generally hard-hitting.