Jacqueline Bishop interview, with John Hoppenthaler
For this particular set of poems, you’ve chosen to work in long-lined couplets. I notice as well that, even though there is stanza and line, the breaks don’t show any particular stylistic agenda other than length; that is, the pieces read like prose poems but look like pieces that are more structured. This creates a sort of tension between a reader’s expectations about the poems, as created by their visual appearance, and the actual experience of reading the poem, where line breaks and each line as an individual unit do not seem to have been considered. Can you speak to these stylistic decisions in relationship to subject matter and artistic intent? Why couplets? Why long lines? Why the disconnect between appearance and experience?
Thanks for your question John. I wanted to try something different in my poetry. I wanted to try and see if I could sustain the momentum of much longer lines. I wanted to see how far I could push the lines, or hold the lines, without losing the tension that I require in a poem. I was very much also concerned with retaining what I call the musicality in a line. If a poem is not taut and if it is not musical, and if I cannot quickly pick up on its momentum, I lose interest. Consequently I have to lovingly quarrel with your suggestion that line breaks for each line or couplet was not considered. In fact, just the opposite is true, and I worked a great deal at getting the line-breaks just where I wanted them. Now, in fact, I have found myself to be engaged in a whole other problem altogether, and that is I do not have enough space on my computer screen to break the lines in all the places that I want to break them because, in one or two of the cases, the lines are just too long for what I want.
In so far as the couplets are concerned, I set myself a challenge, and the challenge was similar to that of the long lines, which was to see if I could maintain the momentum, the tautness and the musicality in couplets. But, too, the lines in the couplet had to not only work as individual lines, but also as couplets, even as the entire poem had to work together and retain both its musicality and its momentum. I can’t begin to tell you how much I have labored over these poems because they felt new and exciting and different for me, and I felt that in these poems there was a shift in my work and I had moved into a new stage of writing poetry. And this is all due to me lengthening my lines.
In so far as there being a disconnect between appearance and experience, I can’t really say that I see that in the works. I am very clear when I am writing a poem from when I am writing a fiction piece. Poems for me often come in a flash—and then there is the intense crafting that begins in getting at the poem that is hidden within that first draft. Truth be told, even though today I am known as a fiction and non-fiction writer in addition to being a poet, I really started life as a poet and I often primarily think of myself as a poet. I am still inescapably caught up in the musicality of words, and now, when I am writing fiction or non-fiction, I am always listening for how the words sound together. That is something I think that poets in particular are sensitive to and preoccupied by. As well as how a poem actually looks on a page. So I really don’t see a disconnect between appearance and experience in these works.
These are historical poems, based upon research and documentation. How, for you, does the experience of writing this sort of poem differ from that of writing, say, a more personal poem based upon your childhood in Jamaica? Is a different process in play?
They really don’t differ that much at all, because, all along, my work has been about understanding the human predicament. In so many ways, my poems about my family act as a foil to get me to understand the island of Jamaica. And this as well is true in these poems where I am trying to understand who the people were that would come to let me have the understanding that I do today of my Jamaica. People like Christopher Columbus, for example. I have been fascinated by Christopher Columbus for a long time, and so I decided to research and learn more about him outside of what I had been taught in school. And it was interesting some of the things that I found out about Mr. Columbus, and this in turn forced me to rethink some of the things I thought was gospel about this particular historical figure. In my recent work, he is emerging as a beleaguered and confused man.
In my research I became particularly fascinated by the ways Columbus kept trying to make sense of the new world that he was confronting when he got to the Caribbean, and how, when people around him challenged what he was saying—challenged in fact what he was seeing—how upset he became to the point of forcing people to sign declarations that he was correct! He loved naming things, and this assigning of names to things that he “discovered” was a particular past time for young men of means in Columbus’s time, this voyage of discovery that they went on. I decided I would, in a sense, go on my own voyage of discovery to meet some of the people integral to my understanding of Jamaica, the larger Caribbean, indeed the Americas. As my interests kept broadening, it was not too much of a jump for me, for example, to go from Columbus to Charles Dickens.
But always hidden in these grand narratives are other stories and so Dickens’s wife, his beloved Emma, became very important to me in the telling of his story. In researching Dickens I became fascinated by Emma and how supportive she tried to be even as she was afraid of some of the things that were coming into being by her husband’s discoveries and findings. In time I came to learn a lot about how the Caribbean has long been seen by Europeans, and I also learnt a lot about my own beloved Jamaica. But I also learnt much too about the human condition. So at the end of the day, the writing process was not different at all, because as problematic as some of these people were and are, they are ultimately human, and my work is very much concerned with telling human stories.
In addition to being a poet, you also are a novelist, a writer of non-fiction, and a visual artist working in a variety of mediums. How do you juggle these differing forms? In what ways do they inform one another? How do you make the time to work in so many genres of art, as well as teach and edit?
I appreciate this question so much. You know, I feel like I have finally come to the place I want to be, living the life I wanted to live. To get there, though, there was a lot of juggling. Because I wanted to treat each art form with the respect that it demanded of me, I often ended going back to school to study. Just today I was joking with my students that you will never know a person with as many degrees as I have! They cracked up laughing. First I went and studied poetry, then fiction, and then I went off and got degrees in the visual arts. I do not believe that this is the only— or even the best way—to attack the problem of having multiple callings in one’s life, but I have always appreciated the structure of being in a program.
What this all means is that I have a firm grounding in all the art forms that I am presently engaged in. Consequently I am never one of those people who struggle to understand which art form I am working in. In the same way that what I am doing now is answering questions in an interview, I know quite clearly when I am writing poetry, fiction or non-fiction. A similar process goes on in the visual arts, though there is more cross-fertilization.
I have great respect for the work that critics do and feel like a critic would be better placed than I am in talking about how my work informs one another. I am not being cheeky about this. A curator came to look at some of my quilts recently. Because I know that the many things that I do might overwhelm most people, I was careful to only show her the quilts. But in these quilts I have used photomontages of my family members. The curator looked around my tiny apartment that doubles as my studio and she asked about some drawings that I had up. Then she started to show me how my painting, photography and drawings had worked their way into my quilts. I was fascinated! Absolutely fascinated! Because without her help I would not have seen this.
The question for me then is not how I juggle these multiple art forms, but rather, could I live with myself if I did not? Because after studying to be a poet and finding my poetic voice, the fiction goddess raised her head and decided to speak, and then the photographic and painting goddesses. In short I am doing what I feel compelled to do, and it does not exhaust me at all; rather, it energizes me. At the very least, there is always something for me to do.
You have done a good deal of traveling in the past decade or so. What do you bring back from these travels, both to your art and to your teaching?
John you ask such tough questions! It is so hard to be self-reflective about one’s self and one’s art, but I want to think that one thing I bring back is a greater understanding of the things that join us as human beings and some of the things that pull us apart. We all look up at the moon, for example, and wonder about her luminescence and beauty, though in some of the places I have ventured I might find myself in a great deal of trouble for calling the moon “her.” These are some of the things that I try to get my students to understand. This semester I am teaching an oral history course, and students have arranged themselves into groups to do various oral history projects. Each group has to turn in a proposal for their project, and this is where the fun really begins because you can see the students’ biases a mile away, that they are writing as if they have all the answers already to the questions they are posing. This is one thing my travels have sensitized me to, and it is that I do not have all the answers to all the questions. And this is one thing that I try to impart to my students.
The other thing that immediately comes to mind is that travelling gives me more, as an artist, to pull from. It just allows you more experiences and people to write about, and I want to believe that travelling allows me to have a more complex and nuanced rendering of the, let’s say, “other,” than I might have had if I sat in my home and tried to do this without the benefit of travel. I know for a fact that I could not have written my second collection of poems, Snapshots from Istanbul, had I not gone to the country several times. I am doing the same now with my time in Morocco and France.
Off the top of my head, I can think of only a few other Jamaican poets with whose work I’m familiar; a few have published here in A Poetry Congeries: Kwame Dawes, Shara McCallum and Ishion Hutchinson. And I think of Claude McKay, of course, and Lorna Goodison. You’ve been the editor of Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters, so you are in as good a position as anyone to let our readers know about the Jamaican writers we should be reading. Who are the fine young (or not so young) writers of Jamaica? Ishion has brought Edward Baugh to my attention, and I’ve received a note from Baugh suggesting that he will send work at some point, but I’m eager to learn of others.
This is a darling question and I thank you so much for asking me it. Jamaica is just blessed when it comes to having artistic talent in my view, and it is especially blessed when it comes to having poets. The poet whose work gives me goose bumps at the moment, whose work is sooooo good, is Tanya Shirley. She is a young poet based at the University of the West Indies, and I mean the woman’s work is like thunder-clap! So strong, so powerful, so good. She came out with a very good first collection from Peepal Tree Press, but in that first collection there was a sense that she was not in full command of her voice. Now, there is no question that she is in full command of her voice, and her most recent poems are mesmerizing and amazing. I can’t wait … absolutely cannot wait … for Tanya Shirley to come out with a second collection of poems.
Velma Pollard’s work has also been consistently strong, as is the work of Geoffrey Philp and Aza Weir-Soley, both based in Florida. I also like a great deal the work of Ann-Margaret Lim, another poet based in Jamaica, who just came out with her first collection of poems. Opal Palmer Adisa and Marcia Douglas have both been writing and publishing solid poems for many years now. And then there is Mervyn Morris who remains an amazing poet. There are of course many other poets doing really good work, but off the top of my head, those are the ones I can think of.
April 25, 1507
In a print shop in St. Die, a small town of flax weavers and brick makers with a reputation for brutish backwards peasants, nestled in the woody folds of the low blue-ridged
mountains in the region known as Lorraine, a region fought over and bartered back and forth between France and Germany because of its unquestioned and dramatic
beauty, the cartographers have just put the finishing touches to the map that will extend the borders of the known world adding a fourth continent after Europe, Asia and Africa.
They have decided to name this new world, this terrestrial paradise, after a restless wandering man with a stunning aptitude for making himself over: from someone
with an illicit household and dubious companions, who himself bartered in human flesh, to a celestial navigator, stargazer, with a firm eye fixed on the exotic. Here was a man
of business, of action, known to do whatever he had to do to make another dollar. (The cartographers and scholars, of course, would later claim to have never known about his
procuring, his acting as a go-between, and his delivering-a-ring for his clients). For this man, this magician who became a magus, with his vague descriptions and apocalyptic
visions of a deeper darker green than nature, it was not the talking-bird with its dazzling colors, which Columbus first brought home that mattered, nor the curious natives
who he spent days encircling then coming up closer to examine, but rather the tiny droplets of gold in the pale of his hand, which shimmered and shimmered before it lit
a fire that threw light on the new land that would be called America.
You cannot go around the world and not come back a changed person. This is what I tell everyone who ask what it was like, my five years on the Beagle. But every life is,
in one way or another, a journey, a voyaging towards and away from the center.
Those years they called me Philos—short for ship’s philosopher. My endless cataloguing
and note-taking. The birds of many species I collected and bundled. By then I had learnt the ancient arts of taxidermy from my friend John Edmonston, a free slave who arrived
in Scotland from his withering experiences in the Americas. It was not as hard as some have speculated for me to befriend this young man. My family and I, after all, have
always been abolitionists, and I, unlike the ship’s captain was not fooled by that display
in Rio de Janiero where a callous plantation owner had his slaves, all lined up in perfect
order, extolling for us visitors the wonders of slave indenture. Later, back on the ship, that vicious quarrel that so many people over the years have alluded to. I say this again,
the Captain believed that plantation owner because he wanted to. These days I am
an old man contented to potter about his English garden. But when I close my eyes
I am not here in dear old England but going again through those clear blue waters;
that unforgettable five weeks in the Galapagos. Yes, the Galapagos, that modern day
primeval garden. The long-tailed iridescent iguana I took up with my bare hands,
the hawk I pushed with my gun from among low branches, and the giant tortoise I rode
all over the island. The animals and birds on the islands were so unused to us humans
that they were much too trusting, poor things, much too trusting in their behavior.
Transmigration of the Souls
The things that women fear and worry about are different from the things that men fear and worry about. Put another way, our concerns, our preoccupations, do not line up,
like soldiers at attention, one behind the other. When I married my cousin Charles Darwin, my friend since childhood, I knew that I had married a thinking man.
Before I married him I knew about his thoughts on transmutation, the writings
that filled one notebook after another. Time and time again he would come back
to the idea that people now so easily call Natural Selection, circling it, as astutely as
a hunter circles its prey. Somehow I knew even then that one day he would do the
unthinkable: take God out of the equation altogether and just that thought alone made him sick, made his entire family sick, with one ailment after another. Charles, in fact,
was never again to enjoy the robust health he had enjoyed while voyaging on the Beagle.
I want to be able to say that I, Emma Darwin, never questioned the means and motives
of my husband Charles Darwin, but that would be a lie. For it was as a wife, a woman,
and the mother of his children, that I cautioned him: Charles, be careful in what it is
that you are bringing to fruition, this thing that you are so hunched over in your study, day after day creating, for your doubts and assignations and endless questioning might so
anger the God I still believe in that he prevents us meeting in the afterlife and, like we have long wanted, always belonging to each other.