Judy Jordan interview, with John Hoppenthaler
The five poems represented here are part of your third collection of poems, tentatively titled Hunger. As is the case with your two previous collections, both with Louisiana State University Press, Carolina Ghost Woods (2000) and 60 Cent Coffee And A Quarter To Dance: A Poem (2005), this collection has at its core a highly personal and rather grim story. Can you tell us about the collection and what its poems are working toward accomplishing?
I once read that experiences we have early in our lives form our core beings. It just so happens that I was born female, in a poor family, in the very early sixties, in a conservative area of the south and thus had certain big ‘isms’ thrust upon me: racism, classism, and sexism. The latter was heightened by the fact that my mother died when I was young leaving me as the one female with a father and four older brothers. Ultimately I think that in all my writing I am examining issues of identity as determined by class, race, and gender but those are mighty big subjects and for me, the best way to look at those universal subjects was through my specific experiences. However, while issues of class are certainly present in Carolina they don’t take the front seat they do in Sixty Cent and Hunger. People find this difficult to believe but the reason for that is my own embarrassment at my own poverty. There’s a myth in this country that we are all playing on an even field and if one doesn’t succeed it’s not the fault of the unlevel playing field or societal forces or two completely different economic systems for the poor versus the rich but our own lack of effort, even laziness. No one wants to be thought of as “white trash.” Of course there are also certain stereotypes associated with the homeless: that they are drug addicts or alcoholics or perhaps have serious mental disorders. Not, as is the case for the majority of the homeless, that they are working, sometimes more than one job and simply aren’t making enough money to pay rent. So I guess we can say that in the first book I was hiding certain truths about myself but at some point I convinced myself that my story was more important than my embarrassment. After all I’m not the only person to be born in poverty, to attempt the “American Dream” (in my case by pursuing higher education), and to run into many obstacles in that pursuit but I am one of the few to actually overcome those obstacles and put my story out there. So, yes, while the third collection, Hunger, looks at issues of race and gender, it really deals very directly with issues of class. The basis of this book is the two years in which I was semi-homeless, living in a half-collapsed greenhouse on a seven acre farm surrounded by a two thousand acre forest owned by West Virginia Paper Company. Half of the plastic-hoop greenhouse collapsed during back to back heavy, wet snows. That half was curtained off with a huge shower curtain from a high school boy’s gym and I lived in the half with a wood stove. I earned my keep by keeping a fire going in the stove on cold nights and also growing and caring for bedding plants. During this time a herniated disc grew worse and worse until I was temporarily paralyzed and although surgery corrected the paralysis, the hospital, in seeking payment seized my checking account causing me to go almost a full month without food. Mind you, I had health insurance. The health insurance paid most of the bill. There was a thousand dollars left over and one would think a public University Hospital which made a 20 million dollar profit that year could have survived without that thousand bucks but apparently not. They seized my checking account and, my bad luck, they just happened to seize my account immediately after I had sold pretty much everything I owned (including a beautiful smokin’ gray 1986 Honda Rebel 450), then deposited that money and written checks off of it. All my checks bounced and my credit card interest rates went to over 30%. Now here we get back to the point of my being embarrassed about being poor: most people, and certainly anyone with children, would have gone to an agency and gotten some type of help such as food stamps. But I did not and ended up going without anything to eat for nearly thirty days. People find this difficult to believe but a healthy, slightly overweight person can go quite a while without food.
I’m going on and on with this answer and haven’t even addressed your core question which is what are the poems trying to accomplish. Judging from my answer, you would think I was simply trying to address a political issue but actually in all my poetry I first and foremost go for beauty of language, rhythm, imagination as displayed by similes and metaphors. I also try on a few new sets of poetic clothes in this collection; I try some different writing styles, loosen the narrative thread (this is especially evident in “Moon of Hunger, Moon of Coyote Howl”), and I make larger associative leaps. I played around just a little with forms. One of the poems is syllabics. There are some sonnets most of which have a definite rhyme scheme but not end-rhyme, and many of the poems have more strongly patterned meter than the previous collections. I would also be remiss to not address some strange, subtle thing that happens during the arc of the narrative. Living so close to the natural world (and I don’t want to sound new-age flaky here because I’m not) seemed to have some strange affect on me so that I seemed to become much more a part of the natural world myself. We humans do seem to spend a lot of time trying to block out the natural world. Our houses are air tight, our air is conditioned, our temperature constantly controlled so how do our bodies ever really know if it’s winter or summer, it’s day whenever we want it to be via electricity and it rains at the turn of a faucet, and if any poor little critter should somehow breach the barrier of our homes chances are that little critter will be quickly dispatched with, usually via chemical warfare. In any case, as readers move through the collection, I hope they notice a new understanding and connection being made with the natural world and my place in it.
Myth plays a big part in the collection as well. How does this element work within the book? Why does this seem crucial to the book?
The main purpose of the myth of Io is to examine the powerlessness and inability of our society’s dispossessed to effect meaningful change in their lives. It also represents issues of exile and loss. I’m sure I’m not alone in my fascination at myth and how the gods just seemed to play havoc with the lives of mortals but beautiful females who attracted the attention of male gods seemed to get it the worse. The solutions to get these beautiful females out of whatever fix they were in are often presented as beautiful and empowering but somehow I don’t see how getting turned into a tree or being flung to the sky to be a star forever and ever is really such a great thing if being a tree or a star was not really what you had in mind for your own life. Poor Io. The most powerful being, Zeus, falls in love with her and the best this powerful head of the gods can come up with is to turn her into a cow. Then he can’t even protect her from being chased all over the earth by biting flies. Is this in any way like the world in which I live? A country which is supposed to be the most powerful and the richest on earth but living in that country can’t protect me from homelessness or near starvation and it doesn’t matter that I was working not one but two jobs: pizza delivery and landscaping? I think the parallels are there. But for me, using the myth was crucial because I don’t want to weigh my poetry down with a clunky narrative message. I love poems that say something important but the truth is if they don’t say it using the elements of poetry (music, metaphor, meter, etc) then I wonder why the poet didn’t choose a different genre such as nonfiction to write in. So the world of myth is used to explore the world of women and the world of the powerless in general without making the book seem heavily weighted by politics.
You might be interested in knowing that it was a poem which took a fresh look at the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel that made me realize that I could be a writer. All my life, deep in the most secret part of my secret heart, I knew that I wanted to be a writer but I had never read anything that in anyway seemed to be anything like my life or my world so I assumed it was not something I could be. And besides, like most first generation college goers I was seeking a money-making career. I was going into the medical field, majoring in Bio-chemistry, when I saw a poem posted on the office door of my English professor Sharon Davies. The poem was Louise Gluck’s “Gretel in Darkness.” The insistent music of the piece beat a rhythm straight to the core of my being while the emphasis on all the women except Gretel being dead worked its way into my brain. I must admit, I had never even noticed how in fairytales all the mothers are dead. So here was a world I had known all my life and suddenly this poem was showing it to me in a completely new way.
James Tate chose Carolina Ghost Woods as the 1999 winner of the prestigious Walt Whitman Award (it also won the National Book Critics Circle Award). In his appreciation of the collection, Tate writes, “There is no confessional element to these poems, no self-pity. Rather, these poems strive for compassion and understanding in a deeply wounded world. These poems pray for forgiveness by their very artistry.” This is a fine line Tate’s talking about and, arguably, it seems to me one of the foremost struggles for contemporary poetry and poets is the matter of Confessionalism’s residual influence on us: how to tell it without lapsing into the solipsistic; how to turn the personally important toward the culturally relevant.
Hmmm. Confessional poetry. I shall admit a poetic sin: I don’t even like confessional poetry. I think conflict is important in a poem. A good story can really carry a work. But for me, music and imagination are more important. I think that’s what saves me from being a confessional poet. It also saves me from being solipsistic. I’m so busy trying to do the hard work of telling these stories of these dispossessed people in a way that is beautiful, using assonance and alliteration and similes and meter, I forget to feel sorry for myself. But I also have this weird personality quirk which has enabled me to never feel sorry for myself. Even when I was a child, if something bad was happening to me, I would think about other children to whom much worse things were happening. My life has been pretty darn good in comparison to billions of other peoples.
Of course ultimately we’re talking about my aesthetic and aesthetic is a fancy word for opinion. So this is my opinion and I feel it strongly and I also strongly recommend that everyone get one for themselves. Ones aesthetic, what one believes is great writing, helps a body and soul get through those lonely nights scribbling away. There’s a lot of talk about why the readership of poetry is going down. There’s also a lot of talk about how MFA programs are ruining writers. (Something else which I have a strong opinion about and my opinion is that’s just total Bunk. At least for me. If it had not been for the MFA program I would still be delivering pizza and would be far too physically and emotionally exhausted after working a low wage, no benefits, dead end job for most of the day or night to write a half way decent poem.) I would rather read a well-crafted, perhaps not extraordinarily passionate poem full of word choices that make my mouth water, assonance, alliteration, similes, rhythm than something that’s passionate but not well thought out and well crafted. True, in the perfect world I want both: passion and craft. I also want narrative, an important narrative, along with the beauty of the language. I firmly believe that if you don’t want to tell a narrative, you should write short poems with extraordinary music and imagination. But I think that our brains want narrative. We yearn for the rhythm, the music, the great leaps made with similes and metaphors but we need to be placed with the narrative. Combining those two is extremely difficult and most people don’t take the time to do it. Perhaps that’s the ‘publish or perish’ mentality. Perhaps also the contemporary world of poetry suffers a bit too much from what I call the “DOA: Dead on Arrival” syndrome. We write beautiful poems with clear narrative but when the poem is over, the reader is left thinking “so what?” Sometimes it takes time for the writer to realize what the ‘so what’ is. As an example, I’ll use one of my poems published here: “Moon of Hunger, Moon of Coyote Howl.” That poem first saw the light of day in the fall of 1994 in the MFA workshop at the University of Virginia. It was a tight, clear, assonance and alliteration-rich one pager about the National Guard doing maneuvers in our fields. It probably could have been published in any number of small magazines if I had sent it out. But fortunately I had the good sense to realize it just wasn’t quite right. It was DOA. It really lacked passion. It lacked a strong sense of urgency. I stuck it in a drawer. Years later I thought about everything that was going on at that time: racial violence, our poverty and hard work, my parents working two full time jobs, the Vietnam war and also thought about the war we are in right now and the Iraq war that happened while I was living in the greenhouse…in other words, I considered what I was scared of or confused about as a child (and perhaps as an adult too), what I was passionate about then and now, and considered how this small event in my life was relevant to others. War, racism, poverty. Those are relevant to most people, I think. There’s the biggie and perhaps my biggest concern with workshops: generally we like and are interested in each other so we are interested in each other’s writing. But I assume that people reading my writing are strangers, don’t like me, are leading busy and hectic lives, and have other things to do than read my poems so it is my job to make them want to read my work. I do that by trying to, for the most part, choose important or interesting subject matter: classism, hunger, health care and insurance in America, homelessness, and the environment being a few subjects of importance in Hunger. And if they don’t care about my subject matter, surely they will care about the beauty of the language. Who doesn’t love beauty of language?
I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question, but I’ve certainly answered a question so we’ll call it good and go to the next one.
You’re involved in a number of things outside of poetry. I lifted this sentence from your bio page at Southern Illinois University: “Professor Jordan is building her own environmentally friendly house out of cob and cordwood, is the founder of SIPRAW, which rescues dogs out of the puppy mills, and practices kundalini yoga.” Please tell us about these and your other outside interests. What motivates you toward these things?
What motivates me? Fear. Fear of hunger. Fear of homelessness. Fear of bills. The idea of a thirty year mortgage absolutely terrifies me. So of course I would build my own house. Global climate change really terrifies me so, yes, environmentally friendly. I’m actually living in a Thoreau-size Cordwood house but am building a hybrid earthbag, cob house with a basement. Tornadoes terrify me. Peak oil. A world which is completely dependent on cheap gas but in which cheap gas does not exist terrifies me more than anything.
Also, I have trouble sitting still. Unfortunately I think that’s the working class background. It’s hard to think of writing as a job. My brother has actually said to me, completely seriously, “You sit on your butt all day. How could that be a job?” But also I think it has something to do with just how difficult it is to look at a piece of paper with words typed on it and think you’ve accomplished something. Maybe that’s partly because North Americans don’t value writing, especially poetry. But it’s like this: I like gardening. I will go out and spend a couple of hours pulling weeds and then spend the next few days looking at my garden and feeling a surge of pride and accomplishment because I have a beautiful weed free garden which hopefully is going to feed me. Plus it’s fairly easy to know when you’ve finished weeding a garden. No more weeds. Everything carted off to the compost pile. Tools put up. You’re done. It’s the same with a house. You’ve had the pleasure of being in the sun all day, using your body, and at the end of the day there is something actual and real like a wall or a roof that will protect you from the worst of the elements. Splitting wood: it’s great exercise, it’s wonderfully therapeutic if you are angry about something, it serves to keep you warm all winter, and when you are finished splitting wood you can see the results of your work. Not so easy with a poem. I’ve never finished a poem. Just abandoned them and gone on to the next ones.
As far as dog rescue goes, that was almost accidental. I moved to the Midwest and found out that Missouri is the puppy-mill capital of the world, with at least 1000 legal puppy mills. That was surprising. I had no idea puppy mills were legal. They, of course, call themselves large scale breeders or commercial dog breeders but they are mills. I love dogs and just couldn’t stand the thought of them being caged all their lives so I started rescuing.
You have written two plays and, I believe, a memoir as well. Please tell us about your writing projects outside of poetry. Do they compliment your poetry writing?
I think that really honing my craft in poetry has made me a better writer of fiction and nonfiction but I’m not convinced the reverse is true. Although I do think about narrative arc in poems more than a lot of poets do I think. I also think about conflicts more. Many poets don’t consider that at all. Many not all. A couple of great examples of contemporary poems in which there are obvious conflicts, clear narrative arcs with continuing conflicts and different conflicts, and even resolution include Brian Barkers’ Flood and Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah. However I still don’t think I think about it enough in my poetry or my fiction. For example, an unpublished novel I wrote, Broken Days, Broken Hearts, is sweeping and poetical, unconstrained by the traditional Euro-American novel structure with one Point of View, one main character, and a linear narrative. Broken intertwines a first person and three third person accounts, resulting in four stories which feed on each other and are woven together through familial ties, violence, race, class, and grief. These multiple, alternating narratives help render a chorus of common history and memory, a polyphonic lament of the last hundred and fifty years. In other words it’s almost unpublishable. Plenty of beautiful language and description but not near enough scenic conflict. In fact, it’s so poetic, that I’ve decided to take out one of the main stories and turn it into a book of poetry then try to rewrite what’s left of the novel so that it has a much clearer conflict and narrative arc.
As of right now, and this is tentative and very much on the back burner, that book of poetry is titled Saltwater Woman and is envisioned as a novella-in-verse chronicling the life of an African woman, captured and sold into slavery on the South Carolina coast, escaping to join the Union army and becoming a nurse on the hospital ship the USS Red Rover. By necessity this life must be imagined but it is based partly on historical fact and is supplemented by all the research I did for the novel which has included reading thousands of pages of ex-slave narratives, slave owners diaries’, and historical accounts of the Civil War. I envision this collection as spanning two continents, several decades, and blending historical fact, myth, legend, loss, and grief to create a multi-layered narrative that speaks to our experience as a nation.
The research I did for this novel has also made me very interested in peonage. Peonage is an oft overlooked sad chapter in the history of the United States which arose after the Civil War as yet another method to control labor. Peonage, sometimes called sharecropping or debt servitude, is a confusing, quicksand of debt in which the powerless, uneducated laborer quickly became mired, ever floundering and sinking.
I have approximately twenty pages of mostly persona poems completed about this subject. I consider the project a record of a shameful, nearly forgotten, and mostly ignored period of American history. This is a neglected subject and although many of these poems look at historical cases of peonage, according to Justice Department Statistics, the number of peonage complaints received has been increasing in the past few years. Most recent cases involve migrant workers.
However, ultimately the answer is no. I have to work in one genre at a time or my prose is too poetic and my poems are too prosy.
You seem to have a complicated relationship with the contemporary world in that you choose (and have chosen in the past) to live outside of it, as much as such a thing is actually possible. I mean, even the choice to pursue poetry seems, to me, the choice of one predisposed perhaps to being an outsider, even a rebel.
I don’t think I live outside society. I think society lives outside of me. Also pure ignorance. Remember I chose poetry having read almost no poetry in my life. I was completely ignorant, completely ignorant, of what I was getting myself into. It’s hard to imagine anyone could be that ignorant or that naïve but I was. Perhaps that’s sometimes for the best. But I do have a complicated relationship with the world. Again, part of that is class. When one comes from socio-economic poverty… a house of no books, a third grade educated father, a high school drop out mother, first person in the family to go to college …a fishbowl town surrounded by people who pick on you for being smart or different or odd, it’s hard to feel as if you fit in anywhere but really hard to feel that you fit in the world of academia. And yes, I’m a tenured professor but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel just a little out of place. Admittedly, and again here is my naivety, I didn’t realize when I bought my two acres surrounded on all four sides by the National Forest and started building my own house and growing my own food, that people would think I was a little odd. As it turns out, they do. A hundred years ago, even less than a hundred years ago, almost everyone built their own house and grew their own food, and I think with the present economic situation, more and more people will again. Maybe they will also read more poetry. So there you go. This is a lot like when I was a child and I witnessed and opposed racial violence. I knew I was right. And so I never felt so much like an outsider. I just felt like society needed to catch up with me.
What’s next for Judy Jordan?
Do you know the saying When man speaks of the future, the gods laugh? Who knows really but there are the two books of poetry and the novel I’ve already mentioned. I’m currently working on a book of poetry which right now consists of three long poems. Two of the poems began way back in the early ‘90s as one and two pagers, and I’ve been pulling them out and revisiting them off and on for seventeen years now. I think I’m finally getting them right. They go back to my childhood and take really hard looks at racism going on around me. As with all my collections, I’m really trying on different poetic clothes, trying to push myself to change and be better, not to get comfortable in my voice and what I can do well. I also have on the back burner a non-fiction work about building my own eco-friendly house from sustainable materials and living on two acres completely surrounded by the Shawnee National Forest, a book that would be in the same vein as Thoreau’s Walden and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. And somewhere on the back burner is a book of poetry that returns to the landscape and elegiac style and language of Carolina Ghost Woods although while Carolina centered on the life and death of my mother A Hurt in His Heart (working title) examines the life and death of my father. Again, like my earlier works, these poems are highly autobiographical, but these poems of ancestry are leaping off places to look at issues of class and race. Combine that with dog rescuing and house building and gardening and it seems like it ought to be enough to keep me off the streets awhile.