Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Poet Jack Christian on secular prayer, swashbuckling and keeping up appearances in his new book, Family System.
When BOMB asked me to interview Jack Christian about his book Family System, I knew right away we needed some rich food between us. Jack’s poems burn a lot of calories. They’re hopscotchers and spitballers. What they do with their eyebrows is faster than jogging but pointed toward prayer. Family System is a mangy, stone-skipping, clever, juking, ropeswing-over-the-swimming-hole-of-selfhood book of poems. They are shaking their fist at the God of trash talk. They say, “How sane to be a knucklehead with a wagon to tote a friend in.” Jack Christian wrote a book called Family System, which won the 2012 Colorado Poetry Prize, and this book says, “We decide the road looks like a nomadic leaf sculptor / went walking up it and down it. That his life’s work took a day.”
So email wouldn’t cut it. We needed to drive through a snowstorm and eat bourbon-chocolate pie and fried chicken and andouille sausage in Western Massachusetts’s best (and/or only) Cajun outpost. And we needed to talk about Family System so Jack could show me why I’m wrong, mostly, to Huckleberry Finnize him.
In talking to Jack, I was hoping to learn more about how he saw the titular concept of family, and what “family” meant to the restless swimmer I read in these poems, the one who would just as soon dislocate his shoulder in an inner tube as hang back on the bank eating civilized sweet pickles with an aunt-in-law. Craft? For sure: I wanted to talk about Jack’s sly over-articulated phrasing, like “Our tunes were of motorboat” and “The Swampwater Baptism includes a gator as expected / and a man who rides the gator, which is permitted, / and a gown that gets wet, but not exclusively.”
Plus if we ended up with an interview bigger than the book itself, I thought maybe it would make Jack look super cool and important in a you-know-you’ve-made-it-when-you’ve-got-an-interview-longer-than-your-book sort of way. Jack is a gold friend and a heavy influence and an older brother figure to me, so I wanted to eat with him and talk with him—shit talk, guffaw squak, OK-but-really-let’s-talk—as those of us who know Jack always love to do.
What I found out was that this book is really the chronicle of a poet in transition, a poet growing up on Frank Stanford and tomahawk yawps but wanting to find his way into a calmer place. As Jack says, going from next hill to planting still. Like what happens when the kid wrestling with his brother in the back seat realizes he’s about set to start a family of his own? How is the rambler with the mom and dad who held summer conferences on how to be a good family going to figure out a way to live in so many different selves and skins without crawling out of them?
And in so talking, I think we shined out a little something that’s really useful for young poets. Jack Christian is somebody I look to. When young poets wake up in a town they suddenly realize they can see themselves living in for a long time, they should open up Family System.
Talking with Jack, I realized that Family System is more than a book with a bunch of whammy lines—post-Ashbery managing a rural grocery store, making jokes about how he’s not from around here, jokes that give everybody who is from around here a crush on him. It’s that, but it’s also a personal book. It’s Jack’s book. It’s a fascinating, hilarious book, and the sugar in its tea is a big, bashful, nervous, and very joyful blood.
Mike Young So the first question I wanted to ask was about the projectness of this book.Family System is what it’s called, and then there’s a line that says, “a family is its own school of painting,” and there are all these names. And a lot of times the names are accompanied by the way you define a person with something that’s elusive, but there’s a lot of swagger to the phrasing. Like, “He’s a real Joe Miller.” And everything fits inside that. So the question is about how you figured out the boundaries of this project.
Jack Christian I guess the first thing is that the name Family System was just about the very last thing that I did. I don’t know if that makes me look foolish or good, but I tried many other titles that I liked, and they didn’t really work. So I spent a long time thinking about how I had all these poems that didn’t go together. And it was amazing to me when I started calling itFamily System, how much they cohered to that.
MY They fell in line.
JC Yeah, so that was a really happy accident. In some ways, it was one of these things where it was right in front of my face. You remember this: the first title that I wanted was Friends and Family. Right?
MY Mmm, I think I blocked that out of my head because it was such a bad idea.
JC I always wanted to call it Friends and Family because I thought it was so bad it would be good.
MY You also wanted to call it The New Testament or something?
JC I wanted to call it New Revised Standard Version. And, uh, that didn’t work either.
ON PRAYER, INVOCATION, AND MEDITATION
MY I was going to ask you about the family thing more. And about how having a dad who is a minister has affected your poetry.
JC Sure. Well, I mean, “family systems” theory is a theory that exists. And I knew about it because my dad is a minister and a counselor. I think I grew up with kind of an ambivalent relationship to the Church and to religion in general. On the one hand, I appreciated it, and I didn’t like when people I knew were overly critical or dismissive of it. But on the other hand, I couldn’t really indulge it, especially the details. But, that language—the language of the King James Bible and prayers—must’ve made a profound impression on me. That way of using language, especially using it in a performative kind of way, calling up these different things and whatnot, was important. That ritual you have to do to say the unsayable thing.
MY It’s invocation.
JC Right, that’s what it is. And also the idea of poems as secular prayers. When I was trying to call the book New Revised Standard, I think I was trying to highlight or capitalize on that idea.
MY What do you mean “secular prayer?”
JC Well, I think most of Emily Dickinson’s poems are sort of secular prayers. I find myself quoting her a lot: “These are my letters to the world that never wrote to me.”
MY So is it like the word addressing a silent world? The same way that prayer is addressing a silent God?
JC Yeah, it could be that, but it could be addressing any number of things—God, nature, the world, a relationship. And it could also just be praying that happens outside of the Church and outside of religion in general. A private prayer or a meditation.
MY But prayer sort of wants for something, versus meditation, where you’re just sitting there being aware—
JC That’s right. And that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about life’s purpose being about finding out what’s over the next hill … as if I would be okay in the world if I could just find that particular life force I’m seeking, some sort of quest for the Holy Grail or something.
MY And also moving from that feeling to a feeling of like: Wait a minute, I’m okay. And just looking around and being in the moment.
JC Right, so maybe what I’m working on now is more of a meditation.
MY A chronicle of the movement from prayer to meditation. Subtitle.
ON JACK GETTING VOICEMAIL FROM HIS FATHER
JC He doesn’t miss a beat, he goes, “Yo, Jack and Liane, this is Dad/Bill here!” He says this double name because my wife doesn’t call him Dad, but he’s calling for the both of us. So he’s saying his two different names.
MY Do you feel like talking with your dad comes out in the poems? It’s just that you’re so close with your family.
JC Well, I think about their reception, which has been really great.
MY But I mean the genesis of it—
JC Right, yeah, I mean, my dad isn’t just a pastor and a counselor. When I was a kid, my dad and mom actually led several summertime church conferences about family life. So part of it is our closeness, but I guess I’ve always been sort of sensitive to the distinction between the way you talk about things and the way things actually are, whether it’s the difference between doing a job and applying for it, or the difference between going to church and what happens at church.
MY Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
JC In my growing up, there was a definite distinction between public and private behavior. My brother and I were allowed to talk about how much we hated going to church and say the most ridiculous things we could think of, as long as we showed up and acted the part later. So it’d be like, “Mom! I don’t think I believe in God!” And they’d be like, “Hahaha, that’s funny!” Even when I was coming home from college to go to a Christmas Eve service—we’d get to the church, and my dad would say, “OK, alright, I need you to behave.” And I’m twenty-one years old, but at the same time, for the fifteen-minute drive over, my brother and I have been wrestling, and we’ve been saying the most blasphemous things, just to say them. So the truth is somewhere in there. It’s in the performance. It might look a little rough and rowdy, but it’s actually joyous.
MY Just for old times. But that’s natural. You always feel like you’re twelve around your family. That’s probably part of family systems psychology, right?
JC It is. It also gets applied to church. Churches sort of act like a big dysfunctional family. I’ve been reading Hundred Brothers, and I firmly believe Donald Antrim read some family systems theory at some point.
MY Wasn’t it hip at some point?
JC Well, it was systems theory, and family systems is a subset of that. I’m sure some of it goes back to Foucault’s shit about idiosyncrasy. Like trying to explain why, say, some organization seems like a good up-and-coming organization, but their leaders only stay for three years each. Why does that happen? Every time they say, “We’ve gotta get somebody who’s gonna really stay this time.” And they go out and they do it, and they talk to the person, and they get the person to promise they’re gonna stay, and then they leave in three years. I think family systems is good for explaining that.
>span class=”initials”>MY “Marie” is sort of like Hundred Brothers. “Marie” is trying to situate everybody so it’s possible to “go out into the warm evening together,” like you say in “Let’s Collaborate.” But didn’t you say someone in your family got mad at you about that poem?
JC Yeah, I used too many family names, so I had to go back and change them. One person wondered why their name wasn’t in it, and another person was worried that a third person would see that their name was. But it was no skin off my back. They’re just names, they’ve always been just names.
MY So was it like that? They were like toys?
JC Well, no. In the first draft, I was just trying to make up any name, but then when that got too tedious, I said: OK, I’m just going to pick names of people who are in my family. Then of course, I started to say things that were somehow related to the family.
MY That were maybe risky?
JC Right. And of course they were exciting to say because they were risky.
MY Private excitement. Or the poem only took off when you stopped thinking of the names as toys and started delving into what was privately exciting and risky to you.
JC I realized as I was writing and trying to choose names out of the air, trying to choose names that didn’t sound too much alike or too this or that, that it was getting too mentally taxing. I was way too conscious of them just being names that I was choosing. And I had this idea that if I just chose family names, they would all be “of a piece”—in that everybody in our family comes from culturally similar circumstances, more or less. Their names are all sort of European WASP names.
MY Although Seth Landman also fits in there. “Poor man’s Seth Landman” is so hilarious.
JC Seth Landman was actually one of the changes. The original name I chose—that guy is actually very rich.
MY It’s funny, it’s not that you’re calling anyone poor, it’s just that the name is too close to the other word. That speaks to a sensitivity of language—
JC Oh, well, a sensitivity to language, but also a sensitivity to the dealings of family.
MY But not everybody thinks that way. What do you think that is?
JC I think it is out of a general familial anxiety about divorce or about keeping up appearances.
MY But to imagine people reading a word just near another word and thinking … It’s a worldview in which you have to imagine that people are actually pretty smart, pretty close readers. What is that? Is that a Southern thing, a Christian thing, or—
JC Well, that’s my worldview. It’s about how everything is symbolic. And people are always talking in code. And if you listen to people, they will give themselves away or let you in on secrets as they talk, if you can listen closely enough. And the one thing people don’t do is say what they mean. That’s the same as my suspicion when I’m asked to submit a description of my creative interests. It’s an artful bullshit—it has to be.
ON OF >span class=”caps”
>span class=”initials”>MY So I remember at one point during the chapbook, we were trying to come up with other titles, and I wanted you to call it Juke Joints You Sneak To. And that was one of the ones you just rejected outright. Is that like a Southern anxiety thing? Like you don’t want to sound too Southern? Does that come up in your language?
JC Yes, yes. I guess this is my own vanity, but when I first had the book read in a manuscript class—and it was a great class—one of the comments was that it was “down home and folksy.” That burned me up, that idea. Maybe it is, but I didn’t really want it to be, you know? Which is kind of a good tension. I never know how much to indulge Southern colloquialism or not. Because I find it really tempting, but mostly I find the reaction to it to be, I don’t know, sacrosanct or something.
MY What do you mean?
JC I’ll give you an example. There’s part of me that thinks a David Gordon Green film is totally beautiful and amazing, and I love it. And there’s part of it that makes me want to throw up because it’s too much. It’s too sweet. There’s too much sugar. And I was conscious of trying to use that tension.
MY That makes sense. And I feel like in colloquialisms there’s a thing you do—say there’s a phrase like “You best watch out now.” And you don’t need to say “now.” It means the same thing as “You best watch out.” But that “now” is functioning in some way; maybe it’s dampening it down, or maybe it’s emphasizing it or whatever. But what you do is elongate the visible versions of that, or you cut it off, like “He’s of a habit.” You cut it off so it’s dangling and make it more visible. How often do you find yourself wrestling with colloquialisms? Punching them?
JC Yeah, I find myself wrestling with them. I’m really interested in the language of everyday speech. Avoiding things that sound overly heavy or putting them together. Finding poetry in language that doesn’t sound poetic. I don’t know. People don’t accuse Ashbery of being colloquial—partly because of his social caste, and being from New York, and all that stuff.
MY There’s a way in which he does it. It feels like an appropriation, like he’s a maestro.
JC Right, and when I do it, I’m the dude. He’s the maestro, I’m the minstrel.
MY You come in with the sweatpants you bought. It’s not like, “Look at these sweatpants I managed to find in a cute little town.”
JC Right, but who knows. There’s a reason he’s the maestro. (laughter) People think if I say it, that’s how I really talk or something.
MY Why do you think that?
JC Because I’m not as good as him!
MY Just that, though?
JC Well, my poetry is narrative, quasi-confessional, about my feelings or my psychological state. And it’s true to me. I don’t picture myself collaging the rest of the world or something.
ON BEING ENTERTAINING
MY You’re saying that you don’t want it to sound too poetic. Do you worry about that from the confessional angle too? Do you worry about it being too revealing of emotions?
JC I guess I just want poetry to be open, honest, humorous, and well-balanced, but in an exciting, not boring way. So I’m constantly thinking about what’s too much to say personally, what causes a reader to feel like you’ve told them too much. The reaction I’m trying to avoid is someone feeling that they’re being manipulated if they keep listening. Because that’s how I feel when someone does an overshare with me. I guess I aspire to making a relationship that’s a little more democratic than that. Or that the poem stays true to being entertaining, that it gives pleasure—not that it hooks somebody in and makes them feel like they’re watching a car wreck or something.
MY What makes something entertaining?
JC Well, to me, it’s finding a way to bring together all sorts of different stuff in a way that coheres, and is exciting and accessible.
MY Totally, you totally do that in these poems. Do you think of that as the poetic theory of entertainment? Or is that like a larger Jack Christian theory of entertainment?
JC Yeah, maybe a general theory of entertainment. I have this thing I was trying to say—I almost chatted you a line I wanted to work into this interview, so maybe I’ll do that now. Which is this: to call myself a poet, I have to keep looking outside of poetry. I’m not against poetry that talks back to poetry, but I think you have to look for all different kinds of things you can bring into it.
ON WALT WHITMAN AND ACCESSIBILITY
MY Remember when we were doing CTY, and we gave the kids Walt Whitman to yell at the cars? And we had done that ourselves the night before? And one house was angry at us? Even before we’d done it, we were talking about Walt Whitman out in the gazebo. You were saying you’re not unequivocally pro-Whitman, that you’ve had issues with him. But he’s doing exactly what you’re talking about. Do you still have issues with Walt Whitman?
JC That’s funny. I was writing a poem this morning actually. I was going to add a line that said: “The search committee contacted me to say that while they admired my project to become the Walt Whitman of Terror, mine was only one of many strong applications they promised to keep in a pile.” (laughter) I don’t know, I guess I have no beef. I think since we had that conversation I like Walt Whitman more. But I’m not as into sounding like the barbaric yawp as he is. There’s a part of me that’s a little bit more shy and reserved than that, in my poems and in my everyday life too. I like to perform, but I almost need to jump up on the table to do it.
MY That makes sense. In terms of poetry, do you feel more drawn to poetry that’s shyer than you are or less shy than you are? Because I feel like the poetry you like is more shy than the poetry you write.
JC I guess I do. I like sort of being let into a private world. It excites me that in a book like Emily Pettit’s Goat in the Snow it’s accessible and private at the same time. And it makes me work in the correct way, in the way I enjoy.
MY What’s that, the correct way? That it makes you sort of burrow into private meaning?
JC As soon as we say something about this, we’ll think of an exception to it, but: when I read a poem, I want to have some sense of a real multifaceted person on the other side of it. So if I’m engaged in working to see that or understand that, I feel like that’s an honest engagement. The person isn’t playing games with me and they can create the illusion that they would be doing this about the same way even if I wasn’t reading, when probably, obviously, nobody would. But that illusion is huge. I’m into these subtle things of presentation. It really pisses me off when somebody stands up and says they’re going to read a poem that’s not that good.
MY What pisses you off about that?
JC I guess that they’re not taking pride in their work, and particularly, not taking pride in their performance. Also, to get back to being emotionally manipulative, I think that’s emotionally manipulative. Because what do you want from an audience then, besides just a pat on the back at the end of reading your not-very-good poem?
MY What do you want from an audience?
JC I want some good eye contact. (laughter) But I don’t want so much eye contact with the blank stare that gives me bad stage fright. I want their faces to be pleasant and relaxed in the way that I aspire to make my face pleasant and relaxed while I’m up there. (laughter) But not vacant.
MY Do you imagine the reader’s face the same way when they’re not there? If someone’s reading your book, what do you want their face to look like?
JC I don’t know. I don’t really know what people’s faces look like when they’re reading.
MY But if you could imagine it, like if you had an ideal face.
JC I think readings, because they have the whole performance aspect, they don’t quite add up to reading it on the page. I guess I think people are more honest in their responses when they read it on the page. And if they’re not into it, they’re going to put it down. But there’s something that annoys me—and I can’t quite put my finger on what this is—about anybody in poetry apologizing for themselves, or making little of it. I’ve seen very successful, fully-employed, many-book poets do this a lot. Of course, you can go the other way too and make it seem like the end-all be-all of everything.
MY What if someone goes up at a reading and says, “This poem is great, guys.” Would that annoy you more or less than someone saying, “I dunno, this poem isn’t very good, but I’m going to read it anyway.”
JC There’s a chance when they say it’s great that it will actually be great. It’s like when your basketball team is down by twenty with a few minutes left. You could turn the TV off and probably save an hour of your day, or you could stick around and maybe watch the best comeback of the season. So there’s an opportunity that creates. When someone says it’s not very good, maybe once or twice I’ve been like, “No, you’re wrong!” But most of the time they’re right.
ON GUESSING WRONG
MY I remember you telling me there were some poems you wrote after you realized the shape of the book. And I think that makes sense. I don’t think those are inherently lesser poems because they were written toward a sense of utility. So what did that feel like? I have some guesses about which poems were written for that.
JC I’d be interested to hear your guesses.
MY Well, “Widespread Plausible.” That’s one I’d guess was written later.
JC No, not really. “Widespread Plausible” was written in the spring … of 2008?
MY Really? Wow.
JC But in a way I could see why you would say that because it was written with “Gothic People’s Institute,” “An Ape,” and “A Tree”—the one with “I was shaking my fist.” But it was sort of the last in a line. The last in that series that got scattered through the book.
MY Yeah, there’s stuff in it that feels like you are consciously recognizing some of what you do, like “of a thing to know.” Oh, and “who do this of our overflowance.” Kind of quasi-Biblical and awkward, funny misappropriations. And earlier, “We never see it and are only about to.” You said that you’d written that in the last of a line, so were you recognizing some of what you were doing and going with it?
JC I think it was more like I had eight pages of notes, and I was gonna be damned if I didn’t get at least a couple poems out of it.
MY So you were sort of under a spell?
JC Right. I guess because that’s the way I do it a lot. I end up with these big document files that are multiple pages long and have lots of different fits and starts. Then I start looking back at it to see what I can find and start pulling poems out of it. That’s one way I work. Sometimes I just sit down and write a draft of a poem and that’s it.
MY “Poem of My Hope” was a one-drafter, right?
JC Pretty much.
POEM OF MY HOPE
This month, Sarah is down and frequent in the backyard.
We make a point of eating together.
She’s annoyed I called Connecticut
a dead sea-creature, mad I said her big cousin
is easier than making babies
and her children should be terrified
or else content to house their unknown hostility
until it localizes as stomach cancer.
What’s crazy is how a family is its own school of painting,
how in mine the men carve the hedges
and the women carver their dresses
and when they get together their favorite color is skin.
It’s obvious that these are white houses and those are white rocks
and there is the graveyard we enjoy
because it comforts us, because it hides death
but insists death is not hidden from us
and one day we’ll lie around each other.
Sarah, you say you think about this. So then, consider me
in the act of bringing a thing over to you.
I’m waiting now by the row that fronts our street,
where I’m sure this is the light we can practice with.
And that man in the next lot, he is our uncle, who grew tall,
and has stood for the decade since he gave up the church
and became the hoop at the end of the driveway.
>span class=”initials”>JC The one that I wrote conscious of what I was doing was “Organization Is Also a Making.” That one is an exercise in not believing all the shit I believe. Like all the poems are sort of praising the imagination. That poem, to me, is sort of saying fuck the imagination. “A river joins the ocean but not to change it.” Sort of like, “What’s all this worth, anyway?” I don’t know—I think it’s the most nihilistic poem I ever wrote.
MY It’s very short. You didn’t get very far in your nihilism.
JC No, I didn’t. (laughter)
MY That’s interesting—so all the poems you think of as praising the imagination. So, A) what does that mean, and B) why did you feel the conscious need, when you recognized that, to fuck with it or tweak the nose of it?
JC Well, it’s just sort of like a natural correction, you know? I have no qualms about psychologizing myself. That’s one of my favorite pastimes. So I would say, with that poem, that there were all these things I believed through about age twenty-seven—maybe twenty-nine, I don’t know, maybe even thirty—but I really sort of began to strongly question. How far had they gotten me, these beliefs? And what of it was just being easy and quaint and comfortable? What of it was really important to my person? So I really started to challenge my previous enthusiasms, like reverence for nature. Belief in some warm, loving God. Belief in romantic love. So it’s been very nice, in a way, to come out around the other side of that. In a way, it was like I previously had this belief in a way things should be. A lot of it was realizing that, insofar as I suffered existentially, it was related to my expectations being out of whack. So I eventually came back around to where I could call a mountain ugly. But I don’t think much in Family System calls a mountain ugly. Mostly they’re majestic in there.
THE QUINTESSENTIAL JACK CHRISTIAN NOUN PHRASE
MY I feel like the quintessential Jack Christian noun phrase is “side mud.” It’s in that poem—
(Here Jack insists he has never used the phrase “side mud,” and Mike frantically searches all the poems for it.)
MY It’s in a poem that’s on the right side. This one here has blood and dust in it again. You have a lot of blood. When was “A Hill” written?
JC That one was written in spring 2009.
MY How far down do you remember them? Do you remember circumstance or just time?
JC Well, for my thesis defense, they make you write something critical about it, like an introduction. And for mine, I really didn’t want to do it, so I wrote this list of the circumstances of each poem—what I was reading and what I was thinking about. And my thesis committee was like, “This is ridiculous. There’s no way you remember all that.” One of them even said, “If you do, you shouldn’t.” But I did. I fucking knew.
MY Why did you remember?
JC I think it’s because I write a lot in October and March. I have a very hard time writing in the dead of winter and middle of summer. But I still believe in inspiration. Usually I write a poem when I feel like writing a poem. So by doing that, a lot of times I can remember the ideas that got me started writing the poem. I remember those being anchored to a time and place, and to what I was reading.
MY So like biography and bibliography, as Peter Gizzi would say?
JC That’s right. But I was always frustrated if I started at that place and that turned out to be it. There was always a feeling that there was more behind it or more connections to make somehow, which is the whole point of even writing the poem—to figure it out.
MY So I finally found “side mud.” It’s in “Hell is Fire and Heaven is Cake.”
JC Mm, of course! That’s the oldest poem in the book.
MY It’s sort of an index to the rest of them in a way.
JC That’s my parents’ favorite poem.
MY That’s the one where the “I” is the most adventuresome, real swashbuckling. So I feel like “side mud” is the quintessential noun phrase and “shimmy” is the quintessential Jack Christian verb.
JC That was the old me. I like that stuff because it’s surprising, but somewhere along the way I became more suspicious of swashbuckling so much. I started to ask the question you can’t ask of your swashbuckling, which is: why am I swashbuckling? (laughter)
MY You can’t really ask your swashbuckling anything. Otherwise it evaporates.
JC I wanted to find something different for the “I” to do. Rather than be this bold figure with the cuffs of his pants pulled up. Because it bothers me a lot when I read something like that and it seems too easy. A lot of it came from my reading of Frank Stanford, coming full circle with him. When I first read it, I was so excited by it, and I still love it, but I had to realize that he’s writing barely post-adolescent poetry—in a genius way, but that’s what it is. And I didn’t want to be forever in post-adolescence. I wanted to grow up.
ON OF >span class=”caps”>JACK’S WRITING
MY So, you’ve been moving in a prose direction, writing about your immediate family life. Is that what you find yourself doing right now? Just looking out and seeing what’s immediately around you?
JC Yeah, what I can see into it.
MY Because your current project, The Apartment on Market Street—
JC Right, it’s full of that kind of stuff. But I’ve moved onto the next thing. I want to write something called—this is going to guarantee it’s not going to be called this—but I want to write something called Fifty Obsessions. And I want to put the “Ode to Anxiety” poem in it. The idea is about obsession as a process. I don’t know, do you experience this? When my writing is going good, I become totally obsessed with it, and huge amounts of time can pass without my realizing. Just totally locked into it. So it’s almost like fifty examples of writing like that.
MY The poems in Family System are also reflections of processes, but they’re not as visible. Celebrations of whirling.
JC So I guess the only difference would be my sense that I have some better idea of what I’m doing. I feel like the poems in Family System are about me teaching myself to write poems.
MY A lot of times it feels like you sort of have this stuff that’s on fire, and you’re throwing it back and forth, and you throw it in the pan to cool it down, and you’re yelling as you’re throwing it, and then it comes back out of the pan. It’s fried and it has all your yelling sticking out of it, and then you shave that down to sharp edges.
JC Yeah, that’s about right, I think that’s good. And implicit in that process is cutting what you don’t know how to work with. I started to realize a lot of my cuts and edits, some of them at least, were for convenience’s sake—
MY Mmm, you don’t want it to spin off—
JC Right, so now I’m excited to work with a lot of the stuff I didn’t know how to work with before. I guess I’m maybe weirdly interested in making poems out of things that you shouldn’t be able to make poems out of. I keep thinking about making a movie from scraps of language—the scraps off the cutting room floor, but those that are evocative. Sideways glances or skewed phrases.
Also I really admire a lot of James Tate’s work. I’m always tempted to take a James Tate two-page poem and make it a ten-line poem, but it’s brilliant that he doesn’t do that. So I’m trying to understand what it is that I could do to allow a poem to breathe more. Somebody else with that quality is Barry Hannah. Especially in, uh, what’s the one that’s really just his diary? Is itBoomerang?
MY That’s the one where he’s sort of minimal on the linguistic pyrotechnics.
JC But that’s the thing, I find the subtle linguistic pyrotechnics sort of endlessly exciting. Even though he’s talking about playing in a band in the Humane Society, the sentences are still amazing—
MY But they’re relaxed.
JC That’s the thing, I’m trying to learn how to relax.
MY Is marriage counseling helping that?
JC I don’t feel as doubtful as I used to.
MY Doubt, just general? Or specific doubt?
JC Doubt about who I am and what I’m going to do.
MY Which makes sense because a lot of poems in Family System are like: “Here’s who I think I am, and here’s what I think I’m going to do.” And that’s what is sort of Whitmany about them. I mean, Whitman is like “I’m everybody,” but these poems are not that. They say, “I am these specific things” or “Here’s what everybody else is.” Like “He’s a real Joe Miller” or “she’s the ice queen.” And they’re like, “Here I am, here they are, here’s what we’re going to do.” And “this is the evening I thought we’d all ride into together,” though realizing that it’s not going to happen.
JC It’s all conjecture.
MY Oh, conjecture is a great word for it. Conjecturing.
JC It all has an implicit “if” hanging over it.
MY It’s an “if,” but there’s also a real “How about that.” I mean, there is: “If it storms, I’ll sit on the beach.” But it’s also: “You could see where to go by the patterns of branches.” That’s really definitive. “There’s a baseball game. There’s a pitch in baseball that is fast as hell.”
JC Well, it’s also trying to be self-soothing, you know? Out of feeling very uncertain, I wanted to write poems that felt more certain, but fraught. I don’t know the answer to anything, so I’ll try to write something really solid.
MY Like the last poem, the “Gothic Peoples Institute”—all these questions without question marks. It ends uncertain.
OF >span class=”caps”>GOTHIC PEOPLES INSTITUTE
And were you cold last night. And in dreams somewhat amphibian.
Was it sometimes a coldfront. What do the gestures mean
if they aren’t the same as other gestures.
What when their hands have gotten past each other.
ON PRIVACY AND EXCITEMENT
JC That’s right, that is one where I’m entertaining the notion of not making anything certain. But it’s interesting you say, “questions without question marks.” Because I really just took the question marks out. I felt tired of looking at them. (laughter) Too many damn question marks.
MY Did they make you anxious?
JC Oh yeah. At that point they made me hugely anxious. It’s also one I never showed anyone because I could never get my head around what it was doing. And it sort of references that: “Is that exciting to hear about, or just kind of some private thoughts?” I think that’s how I felt about the poem the whole time.
MY What do you think is the relation between excitement and privacy? Because it seems like you’re drawing the reader into the intensity of private excitement. I remember on your thirtieth birthday, when you made that table with that wood you found in Cheney’s barn, and then there was that picture of you pouring the wine on the candle? You can see the wine coming out in the picture, and that’s what makes it so funny. It looks like the coolest party—and it was—but it’s also because you made a table specifically for that party. It’s like when you read out loud, you seem very aware that you’re in a public space, sort of holding yourself back a little bit. You’re less gregarious—you’d be way wackier around a table than you would on stage. And as gregarious as the poems are, they also feel private and interior too.
JC To be fair, we didn’t exactly make the table. We, with much difficulty, brought a very large old picnic table inside, and then did some work on it.
But, to answer your question, I don’t know what that is. That tension exists in the poems and exists in my life. I have similar worry with poems that I have while comporting myself in public. I worry about being domineering. I know there’s part of me that could never shut up, that can be a total bull in a china shop. So then becoming conscious of it, I go way over to the other side. The same thing with the poems—the whole swashbuckler thing. I can only figure out how to make it allow for a particular tune or syntax.
MY Like all major key. Or like fiddles, a lot of fiddles.
Mike Young is the author of Look! Look! Feathers, a book of stories, and We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough, a book of poems. Find him online at mikeayoung.blogspot.com.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.