A. Van Jordan is the author of four books of poetry, Rise (2001), M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A (2005), Quantum Lyrics (2007), and, most recently, The Cineaste (2014). In his late twenties, while working as a journalist, Jordan started attending poetry readings and began writing poetry himself. He has won a PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, Anisfield-Wolf Award, Whiting Writers Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, Warren Wilson College, the University of Michigan, and currently teaches at Rutgers University.
Interviewer: How do you go about thinking about the really complicated relationships of writer, character, history, and fellow human being, like in “The Homesteader” or MacNolia? How do you navigate that space?
A. Van Jordan: I think I navigate like any other writer. I think sometimes what happens is we think about poetry, and we put it in a box, and then we think about fiction and put it in another box, and playwriting in another box. But I think in writing in general, we’re constantly thinking about how to represent character, how to represent experience. It’s an issue of looking at what the emotional situation is, and once I figure out what’s at the center of it emotionally, I can approximate the emotions. For me, character comes out of that. I don’t necessarily think if I’m writing about a young black girl in 1936 in Akron, Ohio that somehow that’s different from anyone else who is experiencing the feeling of being cheated or counted out or powerless. Those are emotions that I can translate well, and Lorraine Hansberry says there’s a certain universality in specificity. So the more specific I am to her situation—the symbols, the language, the themes, the iconography of it—then I can talk about the emotions through that. I don’t think that’s any different from a fiction writer or someone writing for television or film.
You write about yourself and about other people—can you talk a little bit more about the head space, or the processes, or the differences, or the not differences of that?
This goes back to Keats and negative capability. I’m writing about myself. I’m writing about the other, and I’m still writing about myself. You only have to work with your own emotional reservoir. So, if I’m writing about a subject and someone else is writing about the same subject, depending on our life experience, it’s going to be different. Depending on what we are able to bring to it, and that doesn’t mean we have to hold onto all of our memoires and experiences from the past, but that experiential knowledge informs how we live in the moment, how we experience the moment. For me that’s a big part of the challenge of trying to get it right, trying to move from one book to another book, one subject to another subject.
You were talking earlier about being a journalist before a poet; does that ever come into your work—those skills or that mindset—or was that something you had to break out of to get into poetry?
I never really thought about it much until people started asking me about it. As a journalist, I thought, “I’m writing outside this mode, now I’m writing a poem.” It wasn’t until I started teaching creative writing that I realized there was something I gained in journalism. Two things. One just hit me in the face when teaching, and that was that I never really had a problem with modifiers. I never did a lot of editorializing in a poem, a lot of adjectives or adverbs—you start to look at an image and instead of trying to get the most accurate image you’re trying to embroider the image. Modifiers. And my mind just didn’t work like that. I would struggle with finding that image, but once I started teaching, I realized that everyone doesn’t write like that. I wondered about that, and I think that came from journalism, because you don’t have the luxury of using modifiers a bunch in journalism. You try to push that away. The other thing is that I spent so much time as a journalist talking to other people, I didn’t want to talk to other people. That also helped when I started doing research. I felt like when I started writing and thinking about a subject, I automatically went and started doing research, and I knew how to do it. That’s the thing that really served me well from journalism to creative writing. There were certain skill sets that I’d already developed.
I’m assuming the research is different for each of the books. I can imagine it’s a very different set of research between MacNolia, and [the poem] “The Homesteader,” and then the whole book [The Cineaste].
A lot of The Cineaste was sitting there and watching movies, but for “The Homesteader” itself I did real archival research. I went to Gregory, South Dakota. I met people who were connected to the Oscar Micheaux Film Festival there. There’s a Micheaux Center there which is almost surreal because the rest of the town looks like Deadwood. It’s this old western town, and then there’s this building that’s marble, and it’s got a courtyard out back with a black Hollywood walk of fame stars and a well-manicured garden. You look at it and think, “How is this a part of the town?” But it’s all there and there’s a curator. Once I got to Gregory it wasn’t that hard gathering more research, and they have the homestead there. You have to get a sense of what it was like out there.
One thing with the two books was almost no one knew anything about MacNolia Cox. Of course, I knew people would know of her because she’s from my hometown. Until I started investigating though, I didn’t know anyone who knew her. I hadn’t talked to anyone who ever referenced her or mentioned her, so once I started doing the research, I started finding people and talking to them. But I knew it was sort of esoteric. This community, they’ll know if I get it wrong, but the rest of the world won’t know. But I want them to know her so I want to get it right. So it’s a different kind of responsibility.
With Quantum Lyrics, writing about Einstein, everyone thinks they know everything about Einstein, so it was more about trying to say something that felt like, not necessarily what he would say, but something he would be thinking. That was my main concern—I didn’t want anyone to be reading it and say, “There’s no way Einstein would be looking at that and thinking about those issues at that time.” What was compelling to me about that was that there was this whole other side of Einstein that people weren’t talking about and that was his work with civil rights prior to the Civil Rights Movement. He was friends with Paul Robeson, Mariam Anderson. He visited historically black colleges. There are these photos of him in a classroom with all these black students, and I said, “Why have I never seen this before?” I’d only seen the other photos of him with the crazy hair and the tongue sticking out. It’s a different kind of responsibility to write about a subject that most people think they know, and to write about a subject that almost no one knows and you introduce them to this person for the first time. But the research is fairly similar; it’s just that with Einstein there was more out there and it was already organized. With MacNolia, there’s nothing really out there, and I had to go find people. But it’s the same sort of enterprise.
How did you stumble upon MacNolia? She’s from your hometown, but it doesn’t sound like you knew that before you found her.
This is interesting. I was in Akron, Ohio, to see what at the time was supposed to be a great basketball game, a high school basketball game. It turned out it was the last season that LeBron James played in high school. So I go home to see this game, and I knew the guy was great, but I didn’t know he was going to be, you know, LeBron James. I got up the next morning at my parents’ home, and I was having coffee, reading the morning paper. I opened the paper up, and there was this column called, “This Place, This Time.” It chronicled that date in history and the story was MacNolia Cox. It was a foldout, two-page spread with photos, telling her whole story. I was fascinated with it. As my parents were getting up, my dad came downstairs, and I said, “I’m reading this story about this woman MacNolia Cox, spelling bee champ. Have you ever heard of her?”
“No, no I’ve never heard of her.”
Then my mom came down, and I told her the same story. She said, “I’ve never heard of her before.”
I said, “Really? She would have been about your guys’ age, at the time.” And I thought, “Hmm, I want to write a poem about her.”
Are you working on anything now? We all have our obsessions.
Not really. Right now I’m sort of obsessed with public uprisings. Just in the past few years, I’ve been struck by the way things would happen in a community or in the country, and people would be outraged to a certain degree, but their response would be done online. So for instance, I remember when Rodney King was arrested and LA was burned. When Trayvon Martin was shot, everyone was talking about it. People were all online talking about it, but no one did anything. Then, the same thing happens to another young man in Florida, then Eric Garner in Brooklyn, then Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—all these other incidents and people were strictly online. So I was thinking about the ways in which this would sort of erupt when I was younger. People would protest. I was born in the 60s, so when I was a kid the big issue was Vietnam, and everyone would protest. And I was a little boy, but I kept seeing people on TV in riot gear, tear gas, folks being dragged off to jail, and celebrities being dragged off to jail. It was fascinating to me—people were out there doing stuff—and you felt like anything could happen at any time. Things could be rough. I’m not saying it was better, but it was fascinating to me that there could be that much of a collective action around something.
It seems to go along with this new visual literacy, how our culture is changing.
Also, how we watch it. How we take it in. What is the framing of a television set or what is the framing of a window? I think we’re watching a bit more passively. I think when people see it on TV or online, in that frame, they’re thinking, “I’m going to get involved,” and they grab their laptops or their phones. When you see it out your window you go outside. All that’s fascinating—those decisions that folks make around taking action.
I know that there’s a point in time when I would have been that person who would have been outside. I was involved in protests in my undergrad at Wittenberg, in Springfield, Ohio, against apartheid. But when I see things now, I wonder. Like when I was watching Ferguson, I was thinking, “I would not want to be there right there.” I have a friend who was telling me about students that he had who were going to Ferguson. Young, undergraduate, white students were going to Ferguson to be a part of the protest. When they got there, the folks in Ferguson where chilly to them. Like, “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” “Where are you coming from?” These guys had done none of their research to know what was what. So for me, I recognize that’s a change. That’s a change in me, and that’s a change also in the country.
It’s one of the things I’ve been reading about and thinking about a lot. I just read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. It’s just a beautiful meditation on the same subject. And, wow. So I don’t know how far I’m going to go with it now, after reading that, I thought, “She’s really covered this.” I love what she’s done a lot with it.
And she has a great visual element with it too.
That’s the thing that I really love about the book—she has a sense of what that gaze is. She understands it. She‘s been able to pull those images and think about the strength of the image in the world, and how that image comes onto the page. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful book. And this sounds like a grandiose statement, but I was reading it and thinking that in many ways she is pushing us to not just think about that subject matter but what poetry is and does. Even looking at the way the poems look on the page. What we’re seeing online, in phones and text, Twitter, the way we’re taking information in is having an effect on how we write. How the poem looks on the page. And I think she’s responding to that as well. I think it’s exciting to think about all of that.
That made me think of something you said earlier [at the student Q&A] that we [poets] have the most freedom of any artists. I thought that was a great statement.
I think it’s true though. I feel like every poet wants to do something else, like they think it’s cooler or something, and I’m like, “There’s nothing cooler than doing this.” There’s nothing that gives you more freedom, that allows you to be more open to yourself, in terms of your ability to express yourself in the arts. You don’t feel encumbered in any way. If I were a painter, I’d be thinking about, do people understand what I’m trying to say about this color?
I was just watching Sunday Morning. There’s this woman in Fairfax, Virginia who’s a choreographer. Her son was a dancer growing up, enlisted, went to Afghanistan, and died. So she’s recreated his enlisting and life as a dancer, and his life as a solider as a dance. She’s telling the story with bodies, and I was thinking, “Wow.” For me, if I wanted to tell that story I’d find some time alone, but for her, she had to have all these logistics come together. She had to find a theater, she had to find a space to practice, she had to get all these people to come to Fairfax, Virginia to practice, and to do the show. I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to think about these things.
One last question, what is your favorite line of poetry that you’ve ever written?
Wow. Well, the favorite line from years ago—this is to give you an idea of how things have changed. Years ago the favorite line was in Rise, in this poem “Jookin’.” The line was: “the room was so quiet, you could hear a gnat piss on cotton.” There’s a poem in The Cineaste, the last poem in the book, “Old Boy,” and there’s a line: “don’t fall victim to the Hypnotist’s narcotic of clarity, which proves a curare for the heart.”
They’re very different lines, but it’s one of those lines that I remember writing it and thinking, “Oh, I like that.” Something that felt like it captured what I was trying to say, and my favorite lines are lines that just ring true. Not about just getting information out, but also in some way really ring true.