I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
“I still do not recognize a necessary conflict between the sonnet and the bow and arrow,” wrote June Jordan in 1986, “I do not accept that immersion into our collective quest for things beautiful will cripple our own ability to honor the right of all human beings to survive.” Through a dazzling range of poems, essays, articles, lectures, speeches, and reviews, June Jordan stands at the interstice of beauty and politics. Her work demonstrates a rare and unceasing commitment to the realization of social justice, political equality, and to the unseen possibilities of true human coalitions across race, sex, and class. Currently a professor of African American studies at The University of California at Berkeley and a regular columnist for The Progressive, Jordan is the award-winning author of 21 books, including 1992’s collection of essays Technical Difficulties (Vintage) and the recently published book of poems Haruko Love Poems (Serpent’s Tail/High Risk). Poetry for the People, a book project with her students, will be published by Routledge this fall. Always urgent, inspiring, and demanding, Jordan’s work has left its indelible mark everywhere from Essence to The Norton Anthology of Poetry, and from theater stages to the floors of the United Nations and the United States Congress. But sitting in her light-filled living room in Berkeley, Jordan was most eager to discuss her libretto for I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (Scribner’s), an experimental contemporary opera created in collaboration with composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars. Featuring sets painted by California graffiti artists and music by a jazz, funk, and rock fusion ensemble, the story in songs of this “earthquake-romance” centers on the young lives of men and women in Los Angeles struggling to find and articulate love in the midst of moral and physical devastation, tragedy, and upheaval. Like all of her work, the opera strives to bear witness to the human ability to survive nightmares of injustice and embrace visions of a more hopeful future.
Josh Kun Why did you choose to set the opera in Los Angeles?
June Jordan It’s the most heterogeneous city in the United States and demographically probably represents the forecast for the country. That’s why. Folks will work it out in the context of that extreme diversity, or we won’t.
JK Your opera dealt with young people within a context that is fairly uncharacteristic these days, in that it was hopeful. It was not drenched in cynicism or nihilism—or any of the other phrases that get hammered down our throats in both the academic and popular presses. Was that a conscious move?
JJ Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I was excited to take this on, because I saw it as an opportunity to present Americans under 25 years old through a completely different prism, one which is realistically hopeful.
JK As opposed to?
JJ Well, when people use the word hopeful often the next word behind that is idiotic.
JK Or utopian.
JJ Or utopian, naive, mistaken. This opera is realistic and hopeful. Yeah, both. (pause) My take is based on my actual experience at UC Berkeley, so you can’t argue with me about this. I know that there are all these different components embodied by all of us, and I also know the tremendous positive possibilities of people working together. I’ve spoken with reporters and so on who patronize me, and I think: you can go ahead and patronize all you want, you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s in my face, my life, my ears—every day. I’ve been teaching here for five years. And my course, Poetry for the People is, if you will, a laboratory and the results are in. It works and it’s people under 25 who are making it work.
JK Let me ask you about the process the three of you went through to put the opera together. Did you write the libretto first?
JJ The composer, John [Adams], said he needed to have the whole libretto before he could begin, so I just sat down last spring and wrote it in six weeks I mean, that’s all I did. I didn’t do laundry, anything. I put myself into it 100 percent. What I gave to John and Peter [Sellars] is basically what Scribner’s has published now.
JK Did writing with the knowledge that it was going to be sung stretch or change the writing process for you?
JJ Yeah. I wrote everything with the determination to rhyme as much as possible and to have many rhythmical attributes, loading every line and every stanza to facilitate the transliteration of the work into music. John asked me to tape most of it, which I did, so he could hear how I intended it to sound. We had a couple of conversations trying to figure out a common language for his music and my music, so to speak, so that he could move it from words into his vocabulary. I think we partly succeeded. What is very striking about this piece is that the words are clear throughout. Peter has been fastidious about insisting on enunciation and John took painstaking care in protecting the clarity of the words and verse.
JK That’s a lucky situation.
JJ Yeah! From what I understand sometimes people don’t speak to each other after all this.
JK How did you come up with the characters? Were you trying to stick within types or were you trying to disrupt the representations of those types?
JJ I wanted to have a cast representative of the people who live in LA, the people that I teach and work with here at UC Berkeley. I came up with all the characters except for Tiffany, the crime television reporter—she was Peter’s brainstorm. I don’t watch television, so I didn’t know such a thing as crime-as-news existed. I was incredulous when he told me about it. He gave me a list of programs to watch and I was like, “Oh, my God!” And together, Peter and I figured out the Asian-American character, Rick. Actually, I was trying to have everyone in the cast be equal.
JK Equal as far as actual lines?
JJ Yeah. How many times you get a solo, how many times you get to the center stage.
JK The ultimate egalitarian opera?
JJ I was really trying very hard. (laughter) It’s an all-star cast. The first character I was hot about was David, the black Baptist preacher, ‘cause I thought that was such obvious, dramatic material. To start the piece with a gospel praise song about a girl who, “like to make me lose my religion!” You think you know who this person is and then you realize you don’t, and that’s true for all the characters. Rick is so eloquent in the courtroom, but then one-to-one the guy can’t talk. I made a deliberate effort to dislodge people from their familiar habits of expectation about other folks they don’t really know.
JK One of the things I found so striking about the opera is that it deals with various kinds of earthquakes—both actual and concrete as well as symbolic and metaphorical—I was wondering what it is, for you, about the concept of an earthquake that is so attractive or seductive to work within? In your essay, “Unrecorded Agonies,” you write about the feelings of being unsettled and how this can be a productive space.
JJ Actually, I had just arrived in California when the Loma Prieta took place and it was because I saw how most people responded to it that I decided to stay. People were completely humane and the volunteers were fabulous. That had a profound effect upon me. Secondly, my idea of romance is that it’s like an earthquake. From the very beginning I didn’t call it an opera, I called it an “earthquake-romance.” After I finished Act One, I asked Peter if he could do an earthquake onstage and he said, “Absolutely!” So I said, “Here we go!” And then I had huge problems figuring out how to get from Act One to Act Two; I was stumbling around. Peter came up from L.A. and we were brainstorming and on the counter I had a very beautiful edition of the Koran that someone had sent to me. So Peter pulled it out and came to the section towards the end about the earthquake. It says that when an earthquake occurs, every atom of evil will be known and every atom of good will be known. And we thought, “That’s it!” Now I knew what I was going to aim for; a kind of denudation would take place between and among people, that a natural catastrophe would coerce or make possible. I felt very solid about having an earthquake. But I didn’t want it to be a cheap shot or a deus-ex-machina, or to be melodramatic. When Peter found that in the Koran, I thought: This is something that folks have recognized forever, that possibility of coming clean in a disaster.
JK I was re-reading the libretto this morning, that lyric, “Sometimes the news ain’t something that you choose.” At that point I thought of the opera as a blues response to the earthquake and the romance of contemporary life—getting the news that you don’t choose and enduring it, transcending it.
JJ Yeah, you’re onto something there. I’ve been saying it another way, and I hope folks will notice that although everybody is beleaguered, nobody gives up on the love. So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a good news piece. But it’s a lot of good news coming out of a lot of bad news.
JK I went back and looked at your essay, “Where Is the Love?” where you write about the ability to love yourself as the necessary precursor to loving another, and to forging alliances and coalitions across race, gender, and class through that love. How did you see love operating in this piece?
JJ I thought of it as what Leila describes, in the opera: “Everybody wants to be somebody’s straight up number one.” It’s sexual, it’s exclusive, but it doesn’t mean the closing off of the rest of the world. It’s a happy starting place. It’s a huge excitement, not ho-hum. To be very excited about somebody else and have that somebody else be very excited about you, is very wonderful. This is the way to go, and that’s what I mean by love. I don’t mean anything other than that.
JK Another earthquake.
JJ Yeah. It’s coming out of yourself, really. It’s a deeply appreciative and enthusiastic awareness of somebody else. I mean, in general. It’s what we’re living for and that’s what I’m fighting for. I think of myself as a political person doing whatever I do, but basically what I aim for is to make love a reasonable possibility. ‘Cause if things are really horrifying all the time, I don’t think it is a reasonable possibility. If we’re living in a climate of awesome cruelty exercised by folks who have power over us, it can happen, but I don’t think it becomes reasonable. But it’s that possibility that makes living worthwhile. My commitment to love is not an alternative to my political commitments. It’s the same thing. Except in this piece I was able to concentrate overwhelmingly on the lyrical side of the quest between two people, again and again.
JK Yet it’s a quest that’s linked together by an overt political backdrop. All of your characters had to overcome tremendous odds to articulate many different things, political or otherwise, but the one thing that was struggling to become possible was the articulation of love. It was a moving ending.
JJ Oh yeah? Good, I’m glad. Peter says he thinks of it as a kind of Shakespearean epilogue. When I finished Act Two, Peter flew up and the next morning we read it together. We just wept. I said, “Do you think it’s too sad?” And Peter said, “No, it’s truthful.” So I’m relieved that when you see it on stage, at least at this point, we’ll see how it evolves, indeed it is very moving and disturbing. If people are devastated, that’s not the intention. We don’t want folks walking out of there feeling wrecked.
JK Even the title, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, which is taken from a post-earthquake observation of destruction, can be looked at in two ways. First, there is a hole where my roof should be. On the other hand, by the end of the piece, it becomes a very hopeful statement: I’m looking beyond the ceiling to the bigger sky. That’s a nice inversion. Let me ask you a bit about the character Mike, the white cop, who throughout the piece is associated with a closeted queer sexuality. I wanted to hear more about this character especially in the light of your other work, your writings on bi-sexuality, your recent poetry and essays like, “A New Politics of Sexuality.” So many of your longer romance songs are built into the conventions of heterosexual romance, I was wondering how his character was meant to work in and out of that.
JJ What I was looking at there, was to show somebody who is in love with the idea of being a man, which most people are, including women. The whole culture is about John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and so, to me, there is a homoerotic content to it. I was hoping that the character could help people toward a revelation. I think of him as a do-good Clint Eastwood. He’s sincerely a good guy who’s in the Marines, plays basketball…
JK Likes being in the locker room more than he is aware…
JJ Slapping each other on the butt, yeah, he likes guys. Then you have to look at that and say, “What does that mean?” ‘Cause if you really, really like guys and you really, really, like looking at men then you’re really, really not that crazy about women, probably. Right? I was interested in trying to confront people with that, have them look at that as a possible revelation.
JK Especially because he’s a cop.
JJ ‘Cause he’s a cop, right. I’m not entirely happy yet with how he’s been realized, but I’m hoping we’ll get someplace where he’s a total guy-guy. The idea that he might be gay would be the farthest thing from his mind. And I want him to be a queer basher. In the rewrite I’ve made him a little more obnoxious and a little more obvious. He is ready to kill queers. I’m talking serious queer basher. So that when you get into Act Two, it’s like, “Whoa! Talk about earthquakes.” Why are you so overwrought about somebody else’s sexuality unless your own is not nailed down? This is the sort of question I’m trying to raise with Mike. It’s a very tricky thing that I’m trying to pull off and maybe it won’t work. I don’t know. I wanted to have him remain sympathetic, so I wanted it to be clear that he really does good things. He’s a committed guy. He’s what I call a community activist and he means well. He believes that everything he does is about being a good man. So he’s not coming from an evil place. And he’s also completely committed to this woman reporter, Tiffany, who rides with him in his car and is so infatuated with him. She’s excited just tagging along. He’s never had anybody like that. I tried to make it clear that there are a lot of people who are out of touch with themselves, most of us I think. He happens to be out of touch with himself in this way. He really does love Tiffany, it’s just a different kind of love each of them is talking about. What I was trying to do was to make each person realistic and complicated. So that if I could persuade you that each of these people was somebody to care about and cherish, then you would be cherishing somebody real and not a fantasy or some hero—somebody like yourself. I developed a legal pad for each character: What does he eat? What does he wear? What kind of shoes? What color socks? What kind of cereal? What kind of music? What kind of girl does he like? Everything I could possibly think of I had a pad for each of them, then I started figuring out, okay, who’s gonna hook up with whom? I didn’t have that clear at all.
JK The ultimate matchmaker role! To actually set up your characters.
JJ This is my party! But on the political side what was really creepy was that Propositions 184 and 187 were not a twinkle in anybody’s eye when I wrote the libretto. [Proposition 187 denies all state benefits except emergency medical care to undocumented immigrants and Proposition 184 is California’s “three strikes” law.] Now, suddenly, this is everybody’s opera out here because we’re all in it. (pause) I want to say something about the word ‘opera.’ It is a story in song. Everything is sung and nothing is spoken, which is partly the definition of an opera. Another definition, according to Leonard Bernstein, is that there are parallel plots and subplots. There is love. There is tragedy. There is triumph. There is extremity throughout. I thought that this context would automatically confer a dignity and stature upon these young men and women that otherwise might not be available to them.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.