Holding a Flower Out in Front of You: A Conversation with M. Evalina Galang

By Dmitra Gideon

galang_color.jpg



M. Evelina Galang is the author of Lolas' House, a work of nonfiction documenting the stories of sixteen Filipina women who were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII.  Her other works include the short story collection Her Wild American Self, and novels One Tribe and Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery. She is also a co-editor of the anthology Screaming Monkeys: critiques of Asian American Images. She is the recipient of the 2004 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Prize for the Novel, the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award, the 2004 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights, and a 2002 Senior Research Fellowship from Fulbright. Galang directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami and is core faculty and board member of Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation.

 

Galang spoke with The Fourth River during her participation in Chatham University's fall 2018 event, Dialogues: Writing from the Global South.

 

The Fourth River: In Lolas' House, the landscape plays an integral role as a keeper of the Lolas' stories. This is particularly striking when you take the Lolas to their abduction sites. I'm thinking especially of Lola Cristita Alcober. When you take her to Tacloban, you note that she is “not the same Lola Cristita as in Manila.” Then, as she tells her story, and as you move through the spaces her story inhabited, her body and her words begin to become a part of the landscape.  Why was it important for you to revisit the sites of the Lolas' abductions? 

 

M. Evelina Galang: I was given the opportunity through my Fulbright grant to take some of the women back to their abduction sites. The women who are participating in Lolas' House in Manila are from all over the Philippines, so when they had the opportunity to go back home, they wanted to go home just to go home. But they were also bound and determined to give their testimony. I don't know if they always knew exactly what to expect once they got there; they just knew they were going home.

 

For me, the importance was to inhabit that landscape as a witness. It was important for me to go and stand in the space where their homes once stood as a way to say, “Yes. This happened. Yes, I have the evidence firsthand.” That's what the whole book is about. And, for me, firsthand means to stand in the spaces where their houses once stood, or to stand in the civic center where they were all held, and  to be able to look out at the landscape to see what they might have seen. It was such an interesting thing to walk with Lola Cristita down the path that they would have taken on their way from San Jose to her home. The house wasn't standing. There was a thing that looked like a house, but it was burned, and she said, “My house used to be there.” That was a way of gathering evidence.

 

TFR: In that scene, you write, “The story was in the trees, in the grasses, integrated in the sands on the beaches, but never spoken out loud.” How do you think violence and trauma, particularly during wartime, alters our relationship with nature, or alters nature itself?

 

MEG: I go back to Lola Carmencita, who was in Bulacan. She was held in that mansion surrounded by a beautiful landscape. I feel like the land bears witness to what happens in trauma, but also not in trauma – in the way we go back and forth on the street. There is a way that the land bears witness. For the Lolas, being back in that space automatically triggered all kinds of reliving. It's not triggering memories; it's reliving. It's like a re-enactment, especially in those spaces.

 

Space is really important. I remember when I was doing some of my research early on; I talked to a psychologist who had done some work with the women. Different Lolas responded differently post-war. Lola Narcisa was one of the ones who did really well, and her story was pretty horrific. The psychologist said that there are certain things you can do to heal, one of which is to take the person out of that space. When Lola Narcisa meets her husband over by her house, she's not herself yet, and her sister's not herself yet. He takes care of them because his own sister had the same experience. He nurtures them back to health. When he falls in love with her, he does many kind things for her. He takes her away from Abra and brings her to Manila, and they begin their life anew. So there's that, but at the same time, she wanted to go back. So, I think it was really important to visit those places when we could. It was interesting to see how different women responded once we were there. They weren't all the same.

 

TFR: When you said that the land bears witness when we walk back and forth on the street, I thought, “Yeah, every time you step on the ground, it changes a little.”

 

MEG: It does change a little. In pre-Colonial, pre-Spanish times, there was a strong feeling throughout [the Philippines] that the earth is inhabited by spirits, and even now you don't enter a space without asking permission from the spirits of the land. You are respectful because the ancestors are there; they are the earth. You don't take it for granted.

 

TFR: The way violence is held in the Lolas' bodies and, later, in your body, seems central to the reader's understanding of the long-term effects of trauma, the consequences of silence, and the power and burden of witnessing. It seems like the Lolas' stories have to enter your body so that they can move through your hand and onto the page. How much do you think writing or telling these stories helps to relieve that physical burden?

 

MEG: It's absolutely everything. They offer these stories, and the words and the stories enter you when you hear them, and you hold them there. I worked with several students throughout the time of this project, several young women, and I always told them, “You have to take care of yourself. You have to be cognizant and take care of yourself at every juncture.”

 

While I was working, a friend of mine in Miami said, “When you are listening to these stories and transcribing, you should imagine that you are holding out a flower in front of you, and that the stories pass through the filter of the petals so that you don't take them on.” You're not actually experiencing what they're experiencing; they're filtered. And you in your body understand that they are filtered. They are painful, and you can feel that pain, but it is not your pain. There's always that understanding that this is not you. That was a really helpful thing, and it's also why the book is structured the way it is structured – with constant moments for reflection, or taking a break, or maybe meditation – a little distance away from the stories, a breath. You need to be able to have those filters. Otherwise, it can be a negative thing. I can sit down for an entire weekend and write fiction and never get up. I will forget to eat, forget to shower, and just be in that world continuously with all kinds of energy. But, when I was writing this book, I would write for an hour and then feel fatigued. My eyelids would get heavy and I would have to stop. And that's why it took so long for the book to happen, because I had to take these breaks, I had to listen to my body.

 

You can even see it in the way I was interviewing. The second time around I was trying to keep my distance. After the last one, I had a fever and I was throwing up. It was like I was expelling and expelling, and I think the writing was the final expulsion. Writing the story, writing trauma, releasing the narrative, vocally or on the page – in a poem, in a song, in a dance – becomes a way of healing.

 

TFR: Vocalizing trauma is a release, but it also requires you to re-live it, and once you've told your story, there can still be shame I think. I'm wondering if any of the Lolas ever wanted to take it back or felt regretful that they'd spoken.

 

MEG: I can't speak for them, but I know them pretty well. Each of them thought carefully before they came forward. And once they committed to coming forward they were going to fight to the end, and they did. All the women except for Lola Narcisa have now passed away, and their children and their grandchildren have now taken up the fight for justice. I would say, knowing them and having spent so much time with them, that they are not regretful. In fact, they are defiant. I remember Rechie Madura, their coordinator, said the Lolas went from being victims (that's how I met them, as victims) to survivors. Through the years of working on this campaign for justice, they went from being survivors to heroines – these superheroes, these models for feminism. They're  in the crowd, holding up placards, and they are not backing down. To this day, they are not backing down. They are somewhere in the other world, and they are not backing down.

 

At some point they actually became people who were saying to volunteers, who were also survivors, “This is not your fault. What happened to you is not your fault. You should not be ashamed. You should be strong. You deserve justice.” I witnessed them saying these things to young survivors, and they believe it with all their heart. It's just how it is. So, knowing what I know, I can't speak for them, but I can safely, almost positively, say that there's not a single one who regrets it. What they regret is that they weren't alive to see justice.

 

TFR: I mentioned that your physical experience as a witness is part of the book, and one question I've heard from others is why you chose to put yourself and your experiences in the book.

 

MEG: I didn't want to put myself in at all. But you couldn't have sixteen trauma stories in a row. That just re-traumatizes everybody. Also, it diminishes the singularity of the experience for each woman, because each woman's experience was different. So, the structure of the book was another thing that kept me from getting the book out faster. A friend of mine, a writer, said, “You need to be in this book more, because you are the witness, you are the narrator who is actually there in our stead.”

 

As these things are happening to the Lolas, and as they are giving their testimonies, and as I am sitting in the room reacting, the question becomes: “How is somebody going to imbibe these stories one after the other?”  So you have this person, this guide, this narrator, who will stop action and say, “Okay time to take a breath.” And I was trying to figure out how to do that. During that Fulbright year in the Philippines, I had learned from the last time that I had to take care of myself. So I would go to church, I would go to meditation centers, and I would see my family. Those were the moments when I re-calibrated, so that I could enter the stories again. When I remembered that, I realized, “That's the way you structure the book.”

 

I was hesitant at first, but I was told, “You need to do it more, you need to do it more, because people need the breath, and they need to know the context of the stories and how they were given.” That's why I did it that way.

 

TFR: Judy Grahn was telling us that she uses lines as anchors when writing about something difficult, and in this case you are the anchor. And you're also the vessel through which the reader can enter the stories.

 

MEG: Right.

 

TFR: In your role of vessel, you discuss the difficulty of translating the Lolas' stories, especially because they tend to slip into local dialects when they describe their most painful and horrific experiences. Language becomes almost another character in the story. You talk about having to use a lot of non-verbal language to comprehend the full weight of what they're saying, and about the need to couch their words in context, because straight translation does not convey enough. Do you think the language barrier allowed you to experience each other on a more visceral level? What might have changed, for instance, had the Lolas been native English speakers?

 

MEG: It would have been done sooner (laughs). I could have told the story simply for the Filipino people, in the Philippines. If I had been a fluent Tag-a-Log speaker writing in Tag-a-Log, or if had written completely in English (because English is the mode of education in the Philippines, so everyone speaks English there), that would have been one thing. In hindsight, I think the purpose of the book is to speak to non-Filipinos as well as Filipinos. My discoveries, as a Filipina American, of language and translating, and translating culture (because it's not just translating words; it's really translating culture) were an important aspect of the book. People outside of the Filipino community could understand and discover the stories in a very heartfelt way, a very visceral way. I think it has created a situation where you don't have to be of Filipino descent – you don't even have to be a woman – to get it. Because the act of the narrator in Lolas' House is to discover, and to make some of those cultural faux pas, or to miss a translation.

 

It's not in the book, but there was this moment when I was using a translator, a Filipino speaker. I asked a question of a Lola, he translated it, the Lola answered it, and I understood what everyone was saying. When he translated it back to me, I said, “That's not what she said. Ask the question again. Ask it this way.” I changed the question around, he asked the question of the Lola, the Lola answered the question, and he turned around and looked at me and was like, “Oh.” So I got it in a way that he didn't get it. That was when I realized I didn't need a translator. It's like subtitles for a movie. I'm watching and hearing in a different language, and I'm reading these subtitles, thinking, “That's not what they said.”

TFR: Another use of the body in both One Tribe and Lolas' House is in dramatic reenactments of history. In Lolas' House, you and the Lolas perform their histories in very visceral, violent role plays. In One Tribe, Isabel teaches Filipino history through creative dramatics. In these scenes, the lines between present and memory – or history – disappear. The characters' bodies become other bodies, or even sometimes the ocean or sky. Why do you choose to tell these stories this way?

 

MEG: Because it seemed right (laughs). The backstory for One Tribe is that I was a drama teacher at one point. I worked with children. I loved it. When we did these creative dramas, they owned the story. Children are so fresh; their imaginations have no limits. They become the story – they are the bird. They take liberties that we, as adults who have shoulds and should-nots in our heads, won't allow [ourselves] to do. I liked that whole practice. And then the question was: what if that practice were married to teaching Filipino American history? And it's Filipino American history month right now, by the way, so it's very appropriate that you asked me that question.

 

In that novel, the question is really: who is Filipino? Are you Filipino enough? Are you part of our tribe? I think the answer to that is: everyone who is of Filipino descent has their own way of being Filipino, whatever that is, and that is always Filipino enough. But sometimes the community has certain expectations of how you're supposed to be. Not just the Filipino community, obviously, but that's what I focused on in the book. [The main character] Isabel is really trying to figure out who her tribe is, and how to be in a tribe. The way she does it, and the way the Lolas express themselves in the dramas we do with them, releases the story and honors the experience.

 

It's a horrible thing that happened to [the Lolas], but it also happened to them. When they re-enact these stories, they are owning those stories, telling them from their perspective, which is a highly different version from the story the Japanese government tells. So I think it's a way of owning your story and telling it, just like those little kids.

 

There's that moment with Lola Prescila, when she becomes the Japanese soldier. It was so weird for me to see that transformation. I had no idea! There was a kind of release, and it was also a way to empathize. A way for her to actually be in the role of the soldier. For me to be in her role, and to imagine what that might have been like. When your body is on the ground and there is somebody on top of you like that, there's no imagining; it's happening. Even if it's play-acting, it's happening.

 

TFR: It's so powerful. And I love that you said, “owning your story,” because I have issues with the word “survivor.” I want it to become something like “author” or “owner.” It's your story now, and you can do whatever you want with it. You can turn it into a different story, you can tell it exactly as you remember it...

 

MEG: You can get revenge. The best thing about fiction is that you can write the same thing that happened to you, and then you can have a different outcome.

 

TFR: You can go in and rescue yourself!

 

MEG: Yeah.

 

TFR: So, you brought up empathy and taking on the role of the Japanese soldier, and I can't remember which Lola said, “We need these stories so the Japanese can heal...”

 

MEG: Lola Cristita.

 

TFR: ...Right. And I'm wondering if you ever considered looking at the other side?

 

MEG: Certain men in my life have suggested that. It's interesting. They're men I respect. But, you know, we've been hearing from men for a long time. They have occupied a lot of space on the page. And in the government. And in the world. And if they want to tell their story, they can tell their story, but my focus is on the women. There is another side to the story, I'm sure. But do I empathize with them? No.

 

I know a while back there was a soldier who came forward and apologized personally, and I'm sure he's not the only one. One would hope that, as we age, we kind of see who we were and who we are and who we can be, and we understand our humanity a little better. So I would hope that others could rise up to that. But as far as where my energies go as a writer and as an activist, I would say that I'm with women, I'm here to tell their stories. There are only so many hours in the day, and I want to spend them telling their stories, and the stories of other Filipina Americans, other women, other Americans. I have whole slew of nieces who are coming up, and I want them to be powerful young women. Their stories matter. Those are the ones I want to spend time with.

 

TFR: In One Tribe, Isabel wonders “why so many people related fixing a problem to dwelling on the past.” Those of us who write about collective trauma, racism, sexism, etc... often come up against this issue. Many people have difficulty understanding that past injustices and silences build upon each other to construct the current state of affairs, that the present cannot be understood without understanding the past, that in fact the past is alive and present for people who have been violated and dehumanized. You speak to this also in Screaming Monkeys, stating that we cannot move forward if we “ignore the need to scream.” Past silences must be redressed by speaking the truth not once, but repeatedly. Why do you think some people have difficulty understanding this, and how can we as writers help them to do so?

 

MEG: I think that has to do with people who come from a place of privilege, of not ever needing to empathize or see another perspective. It's not their fault – lucky them –  but they've never had the opportunity to experience the things that happen to people who don't have money, that happen to women, that happen to people of color. Did I just describe the white male? I might have (laughs). It's not their fault, but they have this way of acting in the world, and it's the only way they know. There's this lack of empathy, and this lack of understanding that the past creates the future, the present operates because of the past, and to change the things in the future, you have to understand the past.

 

This seems to most of us to be a natural way of thinking, but it's not. When your life experience has been one where you can just walk into a room where other people are standing in line, and right away it's, “Yes sir. What can I do for you sir?” (I've witnessed that); when you have not been the only woman at the table in a meeting, expressing what you think the next thing should be, or what the next choice should be, and it gets completely ignored until a man says the same exact thing; when you have not been in the place of the person who's being erased or unheard, it's hard to imagine that anyone would have a hard time in life. It's hard to imagine the things we are going through (see, this is me being empathetic).

 

So, how to address that, how to bring them over? I say, write really good fiction. Write really good poems. Make really good films. I say, give the microphone to a woman. Give the microphone to a person of color. Give the microphone to the Lolas. Let people start to tell their own stories, really good stories, or give them spaces in which to tell those stories, and then you catch them when they're not thinking. You catch them in their most human moments. You catch them in the act of watching a story unfold and getting interested in the characters and the choices the characters are making. You fool them into caring about characters and wanting the right things to happen for the right reasons.

 

Sometimes we have misconceptions and misinterpretations and, when we're caught in the spotlight, we would be the last people in the world to admit that we were wrong. But, when we are listening to a story, or watching a movie, it takes the onus off of us as observers. We might walk away from a movie, or a conversation, or whatever, and something someone said stays with us. We think about it, and then  come back and say, “Yeah, you know, back in the day when I was in high school and I pinned you down like that, that was bad.”

 

Art is such an integral part of how we become, how we change, and how we understand who we are. It's not the STEM whatever; it's art. It's when we can see people as people, and that happens in a good story. So my answer to that question would be to write. The trick is, you have to get them into theaters, you have to get the book in the hand, and that doesn't always happen. But, you know, the tide is changing. The votes matter. In the U.S., the population is changing. That's why there's so much fear. That's why there's so much resistance. That's why the white men are acting out these days, right? They're afraid. And with good reason, because they're not going to be in power much longer. And good.

 

Yeah, actually when you were saying, “This is how you make them understand,” I thought, “Well, or we don't care that you don't understand and now we're in control.”

 

Yeah, there is that. There's a lot of that in the way I operate on a day to day basis. Not everyone cares, and you can see it in our court system and on television every day.  Like, Christine Ford is our superstar. She's standing in for all of us. She's standing up and doing a very elegant and dignified thing in telling her story. She's not telling it because she wants to get anything back. That is abundantly clear. She's doing it so that we make the right choices, because the past matters. If this man can act in such a way back then, and then respond to it the way he is now, now you have the information to make a choice. You don't need an FBI investigation to figure that out, right? So we're seeing it every day. I think we're seeing that they don't care.

 

What I'm trying to say is that – and maybe it's because I'm getting older, I'm in a good place, and I now have earned privilege of my own – I don't give a flying f––  sometimes. You can get me or you can not get me. You can understand me or you can not understand me. But here are the people I'm working with; here are the people who are getting my attention. They know what's going on. Those small interactions that I have with young women, and especially young women of color, that's the thing that matters. When I see them out in the world, doing their thing, that's what matters.


Dmitra Gideon lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she is actively involved in sex workers' rights and environmental justice advocacy. She is an MFA candidate in Chatham University's Creative Writing Program and a 2019-2020 Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellow. She also has a dog.

 

Intersections and White Space: An Interview with Safia Elhillo

Safia Elhillo was born in Rockville, Maryland in 1990 to Sudanese parents. Her writing explores the nuances between belonging and exile, and the conflict between identity and home. She has appeared in many literary publications, including Poetry, Callaloo, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day Series. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She was the co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, won the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, and has received fellowships and residencies from Cave Canem, The Conversation, and SPACE on Ryder Farm, among others. Currently, her collection, The January Children, won a 2018 Arab American Book Award, receiving the George Ellenbogen Poetry Award.  Her future work, partnered with Fatimah Asghar, Halal If You Hear Me, is an anthology of written by underrepresented Muslim voices: women, queer, trans, and non-conforming writers, due out in April 2019.

Read More

The Science of Inspiration: An Interview with Aubrey Hirsch

by Caroline Horwitz

Aubrey Hirsch taught in Chatham’s MFA program before moving to Colorado Springs for the Daehler Fellowship from Colorado College. She has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in several literary journals. Two of her nonfiction essays we discussed are “Speaking From the Throat,on her experience receiving radioactive treatment for Graves’ disease, and “Five for New Orleans,on five visits she made to the city.

The Fourth River: Your essay “Speaking from the Throat” taught me a great deal about Graves’ disease. Did you have to do much outside research on the subject or did you learn all about it from the experience?

Aubrey Hirsch: I mostly learned from the experience itself. There were some things I had to double-check through research, like the dosage of the radiation I took. But I read a lot about Graves’ disease before I was treated for it. After I had the blood test that showed my thyroid levels were too high, I went home and did a Google search and Graves’ came up. I learned that it’s the best case for high thyroid levels. Other medical conditions that cause them are cancer or a tumor on the pituitary gland, so I was actually hoping it was Graves’. I thought I’d be excited when I was diagnosed with it, since it was the least serious and most treatable condition, but I wasn’t. It was still overwhelming.

FR: I can imagine. How has having it affected your writing? Toward the end of the essay, you state that “this process has taught me that I need to speak up more, ask for help, allow myself to be vulnerable.” Have you continued to speak up more?

AH: I wouldn’t say it’s affected my writing very much. It definitely interfered with it when I was sick. All of a sudden, I had to make a ton of medical decisions at once, like deciding whether I wanted the surgery or the radiation treatment. I was working toward my MFA at the time and didn’t get much writing done.

I’ve always been an outspoken person, but I think there was something about the power dynamic of the doctor’s office that intimidated me. I didn’t want to be seen as an annoying patient and then receive worse care as a result. But after the experience, I can officially say that I am now the most obnoxious, high-maintenance patient.

FR: That’s good. It’s a small price to pay for finding any problems that are potentially there. I also liked your personal essay “Five for New Orleans.” It really shows how much character the city has. I wondered, what made you decide to reverse the order of events?

AH: A few reasons. First, whenever people hear New Orleans mentioned nowadays, they automatically think of Hurricane Katrina. I wanted to give readers the aftermath of Katrina in the beginning of the story rather than have them anticipate it until the end. Also, I wanted to end on an optimistic note. The confusing part of that, of course, it that the audience already knows how it all ends from reading the last event first, but I wanted to convey the optimism of New Orleans itself. The people there know another storm will hit at some point, but they still have hope and joy.

FR: Was it difficult to recount the experience of being robbed and held at gunpoint? How do you usually proceed when writing about times of intense emotion?

AH: It was shockingly easy to write about the robbery, I think, because writing nonfiction requires you to disconnect from the memory and write yourself as a character. However, I once did a reading of this piece and had to stop when I got to the part about the robbery—I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I think that kind of trauma always stays with you in some way, but it helps that something good came of it through this essay.

When writing about intense emotion, I try to remind myself that the reader is coming to the scene with nothing, whereas I already know everything about the experience. I take my time and choose the words carefully.

FR: I know you’re very interested in science, and it comes out in much of your writing. Did you ever consider a science career, or did you always want to be a writer?

AH: I didn’t initially plan to be a writer; my major was chemistry when I started college.   I probably would have wanted to be a writer sooner if I’d known it was a real option, but I think English classes in school tend to give the impression that literature ended with Hemingway. I figured I was too late to be a writer.

I’m especially interested in theoretical particle physics. I can’t do the math that goes along with it, but I find it absolutely mind-boggling. It’s better than any fiction I could create.

FR: You write a lot in both the fiction and nonfiction genres. What’s it like writing so much of both? Do you have a favorite between the two?

AH: Fiction and nonfiction are so similar in certain ways and so different in others. I employ some of the same writing techniques for them but both genres have their own challenges. For nonfiction, personal essays can be difficult to contain. Since I have so much access to my own life, I tend to make my essays experimental.

Nonfiction has a special weight to it because of its truth; even the best-written fiction doesn’t have that. But ultimately my heart is in fiction because it’s more freeing. I have the ability to create a whole new world in service of the story.

FR: How does your research process differ for the two genres?

AH: Most of my nonfiction is personal, so just about everything I do is research, whether it’s horseback riding or going to a bar with friends. Sometimes I have to verify certain facts in order to frame the information. For example, I had to look up the Latin names of some flowers for a recent piece.

I heavily research my fiction compared to the nonfiction. It’s a very casual process since fact in fiction doesn’t have to be airtight. But the research is necessary in order to add detail and build the setting. I’d say about ninety-five percent of my research doesn’t make it into the story, but it all influences the story in an unconscious way.

FR: Where do you look for inspiration when writing?

AH: I don’t know that you can “look” anywhere for inspiration—but it would be great if some inspiration fountain or source existed. I tend to find inspiration in reality. Bits of history, science or news items give me ideas for both fiction and nonfiction. I also find it inspiring to be part of a community of writers. I love reading and talking about writing with other people.

FR: What are you currently working on?

AH: I always work on a few projects at once, usually some short fiction and essays. I’m also working on a series of flash fiction pieces about real and historical figures that I call fictional unauthorized biographies, and I’m writing a novel.

FR: Can you share what the novel is about, or is it too soon to discuss?

AH: It’s too soon. I don’t want to create a lot of hype before I know exactly where it’s going. You never know if something will take a different shape from what you imagined. But the fellowship has been a great opportunity to work on a big project like this.

Caroline Horwitz is a graduate of Chatham University’s creative writing program. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Cover photo is from American Short Fiction’s blog.

Note: since this interview was conducted, Aubrey wrote and published a story collection, Why We Never Talk About Sugar, which is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books.  We asked her a few questions about the process.

The Fourth River: Now that you’ve gone through the process, is there anything you wished you’d known about putting together a story collection?

Aubrey Hirsch: I guess I wish that I had done it sooner. There’s a lot of gloomy talk surrounding the place (or lack thereof) for short story collections in the market. I think I wasted a fair amount of time thinking that I’d never find a publisher for a short story collection. Meanwhile, there are lots of folks out there who love stories and aren’t afraid to take chances on collections they think are worth printing. If there’s any advice I would impart, it would be to encourage people to go for it!

FR: Which story was the hardest to write, and why?

AH: Each of the stories in the book presented their own challenges  “Leaving Seoul,” “Paradise Hardware,” “The Disappearance of Maliseet Lake,” and “Certainty” all have completely different endings than their first (and sometimes second, third and fourth) drafts. I guess if I had to give a top prize for the story I struggled with the most, it would go to “Paradise Hardware.” Finding the right balance between the scenes at the hardware store and the scenes between Clarke and his wife took a lot of patience and a lot of rewriting. Chris Heavener at Annalemma had a hand in making that story what is.

FR: Which story was the most rewarding, and why?

AH: “Certainty” was absolutely the most rewarding story for me. Most of my stories are about relationships that are broken in some fundamental way, but “Certainty” is very much a love story. When I sent it to Roxane Gay at PANK, she remarked that she thought the story was very romantic. That in itself felt like a win for me! I was also really honored to have this chosen as the runner-up for last year’s Micro Award. It makes me feel like the piece has connected with people, and that’s always what I’m trying to do.


Anyone Who Would Talk with Me: An Interview with Julia Spicher Kasdorf

By Amy Lee Heinlen, for The Fourth River

KasdorfJulia-432x519.jpg

Julia Spicher Kasdorf visited Chatham University as the guest poet for the 2014 Summer Community of Writers (SCW). It was here that I heard Julia read from her enquiring and provocative new project in which she folds language, history, and place into powerful and distressing poems which record the voices of those involved in the Western Pennsylvania natural gas industry boom. Intrigued by her new poems,, I emailed Julia to find out more about her project and this fierce poem.

The Fourth River: At your reading during SCW, you read a series of profoundly moving poems from a current project. Will you elaborate this project?

Julia Spicher Kasdorf: Oh, thanks for saying that you found them moving! The project, which I’m now calling Shale Play, is a series about impacts of shale gas development in Pennsylvania. I’m still working on it, hoping to eventually publish it with photographs.

Last year I was fortunate to have time off from teaching, thanks to a sabbatical from the English Department and a fellowship from the Institute of Arts and Humanities at Penn State. I took 17 or 18 trips to northern PA (Tioga and Lycoming Counties) and southwestern PA (Westmoreland and Fayette Counties, where I grew up). At home and on campus, I learned all I could through print and on-line sources about the history, engineering, and technology of this industry. It can be argued that the current gas boom started at Penn State, with the research of geoscientist Terry Engelder, and that Penn State has shaped state policy and local practices, for better or for worse. Quite a few faculty members in fields outside of geoscience—forestry, agricultural economics, hydrology, rural sociology, landscape architecture and education—do research in this area, too. I will add that the faculty is not of one mind on the issue, despite the common perception that Penn State is in collusion with the industry.

But I really wanted to see what’s happening in local communities. Like Zora Neale Hurston says, “You got to go there to know there.”

I have contacts in western PA from growing up there, and Judith Sornberger and James Guignard at Mansfield University helped me to understand the lay of the land up north. Then I just drove around and sat in diners and talked with anyone I could find who has had experience with shale gas—landowners, leaseholders, workers in the industry and workers around the industry like waitresses, people who live near compressor stations, people who live near wells, an attorney, clergy, activists, anyone who would talk with me. One conversation led to another, and I wrote down everything I could.

TFR: During your craft talk at SCW, you noted the difference between a poet of document and poet of witness. I’m interested in how you think about your role as a poet while you work on Shale Play. Has your view of your role as a poet changed during this project compared to your previous poetry collections?

JSK: This is different from previous collections in that it’s my first self-conscious project of poetry. Sleeping Preacher reads like an autoethnographic project book, but I wasn’t mindful of that when I was writing many of those poems in graduate school. My most recent collection, Poetry in America, makes documentary gestures, quoting voices in my small town during the Iraq war, for instance, and citing historical events. But this is the first Project Book I’ve attempted. It came after teaching a course in documentary poetry: Reznikoff, Rukeyser, C.D. Wright, Mark Nowak, and so on. I’m intrigued by that work, and then we have this industrial invasion happening in rural Pennsylvania that I wanted to understand and record. I’m a poet. I start with language. I’m not an activist who must simplify the discourse. I’m an artist drawn to the complexity and emotional intensity of the situation. I listen. I want to hear how this development will change language along with the landscape. I want to amplify voices—including the voices of memory—that shape experience. That’s how I entered the project, anyway. The more I see and hear, the more I’ve come to identify with those who have been harmed.

TFR: I’m interested to know more about the relationship between the “citizen with too much memory” and the “I” in your poem, “Among Landowners and Industrial Stakeholders, a Citizen with Too Much Memory Seeks Standing to Speak of Recent Events in Penn’s Woods.” What does it mean that she “seeks standing to speak?”

JSK: The “citizen” is the speaker, is the author. The title comes from something I was thinking about. In these Marcellus Shale communities, when there’s a public hearing about something—a pipeline going in, say, or a compressor station venting volatile organic compounds or making a ridiculous amount of noise—there are often restrictions on who has “standing,” which means who is permitted to speak at the meeting. You might have standing if you have a business interest at stake or if you own property within a certain distance. So what qualifies me to speak about shale gas development? This poem is my answer to that question. I guess “too much memory” is a way of saying that I’m a “stakeholder” because of all I carry in my mind and body. My only claim on this place is knowledge of public and private history, how that information comes off the land when I move through it.  

TFR: One thing that struck me is the difference in the tone of the title from the poem itself. I think the title feels distant both because it is written in the third person and because it is explanatory. This has a similar feel to the titles of the poems you read at SCW. How did you come to decide to title this piece and other poems in your project this way?  What work do you feel it is able to do first for you as the writer and then for the reader?

JSK: Yes, this title! Maybe it won’t stay. The poem used to be called “Witness Trees,” but that sounds too much like POETRY, doesn’t it? I’d begun writing these flat titles for the other monologues. The poems are often quite raw, but the titles establish the identity of the speaker with reference to place and often a topic or central concern, for example: “A Student from Tunkhannock Articulates Shale Gas Aspirations” or “A Mother Near the West Virginia Line Considers the Public Health.” The title functions like a handle for the reader to grab onto. This is one of few poems in the series that’s spoken in my own voice, so it seemed only fair to pin that kind of title onto myself, too.

TFR: There is so much history in this piece. It is American history in so many experiences: Native Americans, settlers, the lore of your ancestors, family you’ve known, and your personal ties to the land all show up here. I was struck by the gas company’s invasion of the landscape, most notably in places important to the speaker’s family history, juxtaposed with the early Pennsylvania pacifist settlers’ often violent encounters with the Native Americans. Do you feel that pacifism influences the actions of the people living in these regions today? Or how do you view the juxtaposition working in this piece?

JSK: Certainly for some pacifists living in these regions, that ideal persists and determines actions, and yet one lesson of Penn’s Holy Experiment is that violence cannot be externalized or eradicated entirely.

The piece works associatively, turning from one form of violence to another. You’ll find trees or wood in almost every section. Trees have been associated with human bodies from antiquity—think of Myrrha. Jeff Gundy, a poet friend, read this and said he thinks it’s like surrealism, except that the piece is made of events from memory and history, not imagination and dream. Every statement is factual, as far as I know, except the location of the place where my dad’s feed truck lost its brakes in the 1950s; that happened on another mountain nearby.

TFR: Clearly, you have researched this topic in a variety of ways. What has the process been like as you decide what historic morsels stay in, what gets set aside?

JSK: So much of it relies on the sifting of memory; I have the kind of mind that hoards details and trivia. When people have been able to live in the same place for a long time, stories get inscribed on the landscape the way junk collects in the attic. Yet, places change. That compressor shed at the end of Peight’s lane felt like a violation when I spied it. I was thinking about gas development and suddenly seeing its signs everywhere on the landscape.

I grew up knowing the story of what some people call “the Hochstetler massacre,” but after he was rescued from the river, Jacob had to make a deposition to General Bouquet, so there are records I could read. I researched in various ways, mostly digitally, which felt like such a luxury, discovering all those mostly useless but really interesting details! The corner trees/witness trees turned up in a New York Times piece about forestry studies. Some of the details in the fifth section were passed on from my father-in-law, John Ruth, who’s working on a book about the early history of eastern Pennsylvania, the arrival of the Mennonites, and Penn’s sons and the broken treaties that led to the involvement of Native people in the Seven Years War between England and France.

I wanted to move through time and think about violence in this landscape, but beyond that, intuition determined which details to include.

TFR: This piece explores the complicated, even violent relationship the speaker has to the land she calls home. One of the last sentences of this poem rings with a tension that I have often felt myself, “I drive home and cook my groceries on a gas stove.” What have you found that poetry is able to do when confronted with the dualism of the negative impact of the gas drilling practices on the land and communities close to the drilling versus the modern conveniences most Americans have come to expect?

JSK: Poetry can help us face the facts and feel the grief of this reality. We’re all in it. We’re all implicated. Perhaps there can be hope in that, too, if it means that we can see that we’re all responsible for caring for these places and communities, and for finding sustainable ways to live.






Amy Lee Heinlen studies poetry in the MFA program at Chatham University where she also works as a librarian. Her poems have appeared in The Mom Egg Review, multiple volumes of Voices in the Attic, and The Red Clay Review. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, daughter, and two cats.


Telling Two Stories in One Breath: An Interview with Tyehimba Jess


by Jessica Kinnison

American poet Tyehimba Jess entered the MFA program at New York University in 2002 with half of his poetry book leadbelly written. His colleagues knew what he was going to bring to every workshop—another leadbelly poem.

leadbelly (2005) follows the story of Louisiana-born folk singer Huddie William Ledbetter, born in 1885, from Shreveport, LA to Texas to Angola Prison to New York City. leadbelly was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and was voted one of the top three books of the year by Black Issues Book Review.

A two-time winner of the Chicago Green Mill Slam team, Jess was Chicago’s ambassador to Accra, Ghana. He is the author of African American Pride: Celebrating our Achievements, Contributions and Enduring Legacy (2003), and his work has been featured in numerous anthologies. A Cave Canem Alumni, he received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and won a 2006 Whiting Award. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TedX Nashville Conference. Currently, he is Assistant Professor of English at College of Staten Island.

I interviewed Jess immediately following his reading at the Allegheny County Jail as part of Chatham University’s Words Without Walls Black Writers Series. He visited to tell the story of how Leadbelly’s music lives in each of us as Americans. He says, “At least people are saying his name. They are saying his name.”

.

The Fourth River: Why do you write and for whom?

Tyehimba Jess: I used to write for political purposes strictly. I was interested in writing poems that would inspire people to take political action. That’s what “when niggas love Revolution like they love the bulls” is all about. Those poems were for black people.  But you know you can’t control who reads your work.

So, after a while, I came to accept the idea that I was writing for everybody. Even when I thought I was writing for black people, not all black people agreed with what I was writing. It is difficult to say that you are writing for one particular group of people.  It can limit your imagination. After a while, I was like, “OK, I am writing for the entire world.” I think that later on, it became about writing for me.

The more I write, the more I realize it is about conveying a message. My poetry is pretty clear. Generally, you know what I am writing about by the end of a poem. I try to write that way. But it is working internally, as well.

When I am doing these poems, these syncopated sonnets and all that, I think I am trying to find a way to tell two different stories in one breath. I am looking for metaphors beyond the rhetorical that link into the shape of the poem and [into] the way the poem is read on the page.

FR: What do you think of the academic world as a space for writers?

TJ: I am part of a few different streams of poetry phenomena that are having an effect on the way poetry is being perceived in academia. One is slam: slam was started because of a man named Mark Smith in Chicago who was really disenchanted with the way poetry in academia was presenting itself as a kind of boutique, elite pastime that was not interested in connecting with the ordinary Joe Schmo on the street.

I think that the brilliant thing about Mark is that he was able to start this institution that’s very simple, very organic and really, in a way, doesn’t get the kind of credit in academia that it deserves for its impact on American poetry.

He’s one of those people who deserves a MacArthur grant because he saw a need and he filled it in a very simple way, in a way that answered the call of so many people who were interested. He helped throngs and throngs of people to understand that poetry doesn’t have to be outside of their grasp. It doesn’t have to be something that is performed by other people. They can perform it.

Whatever complaints people may have about slam, it brought poetry to the people and the same with Cave Canem. It’s an institution for black poets started by Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady that really eliminated the isolation that so many black poets felt on a fundamental level. The thing about Cave Canem is that it created a connection for black poets nationally and internationally that enabled us to grow at a rate we would not have been able to obtain without that community.

FR: Why did you choose poetry as your form for leadbelly? It reads like a novel.

TJ: First off, I am not as good at fiction as I am at poetry. I seem to be more geared toward saying a certain thing in a certain amount of time. leadbelly is almost all prose poems when he is speaking. Partly because I thought of him in terms of prose, really simply and not all enjambed. You know, it is prosaic and it follows a particular arc. It is linear in that respect. I think those are reasons it seems like a novel, in a way.

FR: Philip Larkin once wrote, “the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.” In your case, what are you preserving in your poems?

TJ: Yes, I guess I am in the business of historical preservation. There were a few things I was trying to preserve. One was Leadbelly’s legacy but also the idea of the work that the old music has done for us.  When I say “us,” I mean nationally what that work has done.

That legacy continues. The thing I think about a lot is the roots of the music, particularly in regard to the African community and the African-American contribution. With this new work I am doing, it is beyond the music. It is about theater and literature as well. When you look at the intellectual property, so much of that property has been generated from the black community.

Paying homage to Leadbelly, trying to present a portrait of his life, to me, meant recalling the pain and the joy that went into making that music. It lies at the bottom of American music. So I guess I’m back where Philip Larkin was: at the bottom of his preservation.

FR: So under everything is the need to preserve?

TJ: Yes, I would say that. Continue that story forward. Just having people say the word “Leadbelly” today in 2013, I am glad to be a part of that. And it’s not just him; it is the story and everything that the story entails, that idea, that aesthetic.

FR: You were a DJ at the University of Chicago for 10 years.  Who were some of the people you played most?

TJ: Man, I played so many people: Alice Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock, Art Ensemble of Chicago. I think the beautiful thing about Chicago is that they have something called AACM. It is really sort of an avant-garde arts organization.  I was very privileged to see these guys walking around the neighborhood. Overseas, they were superstars. You know, they were just phenomenal musicians. So I got the opportunity to see them on a regular basis. Lester Boyd, Malichi Favors, I got to see Sun Ra a couple times, Fred Anderson.

There was a little bar called the Velvet Lounge. It’s still there. It was the best music in Chicago. It was very cheap. The musical legacy in Chicago was wonderful. Then you also had the blues musicians. So my show started out as all jazz. Then it started to include blues, too. Like I played Muddy Waters, then I’d play John Coltrane, then I’d play some Sun Ra, then I’d go all the way back in the shed to get some Robert Johnson. I’d go back and forth and back and forth. I was playing with what Amiri Baraka would call “The Music,” the idea of the genres of music just drifting together into a continuum, especially with jazz and blues. I loved it. Then I would do interviews with political prisoners, prisoners of war and activists.

FR: I noticed that you use variations on blues phrases in leadbelly like “black snake moan.” Did you put them in while you were writing or did you go back and texturize the piece with common blues phrases?

TJ: It was probably a combination of the two. It’s kind of like the first pass: I go through a poem and have these weak words and stronger words. I take out words that are not contributing to the energy of the poem, and I think about words that could make the poem more active or add to the texture, and I go back and throw in a lot of other allusions. I try to reach in as many directions as I can. Some of them come naturally and those are the ones that I am actually more weary of because they are more likely to be cliché. If they are clichés, I try to come back and change them up a little.

FR: Do you think people who don’t listen to blues would notice blues phrases?

TJ: It’s hard for me to say what people’s perception of blues is. I think partly because I have been listening to it for so long. It is hard for me to detach myself from the lack of understanding regarding blues. If you were to say the word “blues” to most people, maybe one of the words that would come to their minds is “Eric Clapton” or “B.B. King” or “guitar” or the opening of the Dave Chapelle show. So there are a lot of standard images that people come up with. I am trying to write either against that or to deepen that understanding. I think that is true with anybody. If you were to say “polka music,” I probably wouldn’t know that much. I should. I think “accordion.” That is part of my charge to understand how all those musics can relate.

FR: How did your perspective on the book change after you went to Shreveport for the first time?

The most important thing I did there was visit his grave. I also met his grandniece. He is buried in this churchyard that is off of a dirt path that is off a dirt path that is off of a one-lane road. It’s way the fuck out. He died in New York but he was buried down there. It gave me an impression of where he walked. Of course, I was seeing Shreveport past its heyday. I could still see the streets and soak in the atmosphere. It was good to see the places I had written about.

I always felt guilty about the ability to claim that territory. I wanted to treat it with the respect it deserves. I wanted to treat him and the place that he came from with respect. I felt like it was incumbent upon me to give it a visit and say “Hello.” So, in a way, it gave me a kind of permission to continue on that journey of seeking out the details of his legacy.

FR: Is it true your immediate family would not exist without the Great   Migration?

TJ: You could say the same thing for probably at least half of black people in America today. The South was repressive. The North was repressive but in a different way.

FR: Michele Norris said that her parents didn’t talk about the South because they didn’t want to put rocks in their children’s pockets. If they put that anger in their pockets, it would weigh them down. Your parents were active in the community and also in race relations. How did that affect you and your writing?

TJ: It affected me in several ways. One is my dad is an avid, avid reader. He probably had 30 magazine subscriptions and books all around the house all the time. Both of them were very intent on having us read. I have an older brother and an older sister. My brother went to Michigan. My sister went to MIT. I think that my parents’ support and insistence upon college and that exposure to the necessity of reading at a very young age affected me.

As far as their relationships with their hometowns: I went down to visit my grandmother in Greenville, South Carolina when I was a kid. It was like visiting another planet.  This was in the 1970s. Greenville at that time was not the Greenville it is now. It is really a big, bustling city now. Back then, it was not a big place. There was a dirt road in front of my grandma’s house.

My dad didn’t talk very much about (well he didn’t talk that much at all) about South Carolina and his life down there. And my mother would talk about Oklahoma to a certain degree; she still does.

I think that their attitude was similar to what you are talking about. When you look at it, it really was like going from one country to another country. I mean, my dad was in the Confederate state—South Carolina. He still has his high school diploma. The signature on it is Strom Thurmond’s. My dad is 80 years old. It was like an entirely different land of opportunity. There is no way my father would have been able to work for the Department of Public Health in South Carolina at that time. There is just no way; it would not have been possible.

My mother left Oklahoma because she could not attend the nursing schools there. My mom also lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. She graduated before those nine students marched up the steps to that high school. Their attitude was the one of most black folks at that time: they wanted to get out.

FR: You changed your name legally in 1999. What did your parents think about that?

TJ: They were reluctantly accepting of it. I was living as Jesse Goodwin before I changed it, formally, in 1999, but [informally, starting in 1992], everybody called me Tyehimba Jess. You will be surprised how quickly you find yourself around nobody who knows your original name. It caught on within a couple years.  By the time it became legal, it had pretty much already happened anyway.

FR: Tyehimba means “we stand as a nation.” What does that mean to you?

TJ: I got it from a book in college. I took a lot of time trying to find a word that would be appropriate. This word, to me, infused the idea of black self-determination. You know, working together to achieve various and sundry goals. On the other hand, I didn’t want to completely abandon my family in that process. I was disturbed by our name being Goodwin because it was passed down from a slave owner. So I decided to keep my first name and make it my last name. My first name was Jesse, and that is my father’s name and his father’s name.

FR: Did your writing change once you changed your name?

TJ: My name came slowly.

FR: The name was your public persona and slowly became your private persona?

TJ: I think I was part of the last generation to change our names to African names. I mean, I don’t know what 20 year-olds are doing now, but I don’t think they are changing their names to African names. Many of the artists at that time were changing their names if not legally, informally. So it was not a unique thing.

The good thing about it is that I did not change my name more than once and I really carefully considered it before [the change]. I waited for seven years before I made it legal. So I had a long time to live with it. The decision to make it legal, to me, meant that I could stop leading a double life. Stop being Tyehimba Jess until I needed a check signed. It seemed inauthentic. I didn’t consider the name inauthentic. I considered the state’s right to claim what my name was illegitimate. One of my questions was whether or not to give the state that legitimacy, but after a while, I knew that, practically, it was the thing to do.

FR: Where did you start on the page when writing the syncopated sonnet about the twins?

TJ:  I started with the middle. I finished the middle because really the middle is based off of another poem I did called “Blind Tom.” It was the first one I made that went down and back. It was about Blind Tom being buried in two different locations. So, when it came to the McCoy Twins, I was wracking my brain as to how to approach talking about them.

I guess the form and the subject matter came simultaneously. I thought, well, I will mimic the shape of their bodies. So how can I do that? I already had the Blind Tom thing, so I thought I could reverse the polarity to have two heads and one middle. Then I can come up and have one head and two middles. So I did one and I did another one and another one. Those things are like a puzzle.

FR: You said that you don’t write in forms, but there are many forms in leadbelly.

TJ: I guess the counterpointes I’m doing are forms. I also call them double-jointed. That crown of sonnets in the book was the first set of poems in form I ever wrote. The thing about sonnets is that they are long enough to say something and short enough to get to the point. At this point in our history, sonnets can be unrhymed and all kinds of stuff. Fourteen lines, oh, it’s a sonnet. It’s got this kind of elasticity to it. And the rhyme scheme can be as strict as you want it to be and as loose as you want it to be. I am going for the story, in particular.

FR: Which professors did you study with at NYU?

TJ: Philip Levine, Marie Howe, and Sharon Olds.

FR: Did any of those teachers give you a major suggestion for leadbelly that you rejected?

TJ: Yes, Phil Levine told me to put the book in third person. I seriously considered that for a long time. And I couldn’t do it. It was difficult. In that class, I agreed with 99 percent of the things he said. He is a very, very sharp guy. It was hard to do that when I first rolled up in there. I couldn’t do it. It was not a physical thing. It was a mental thing. For me, that is the trope of the book. It would have lost immediacy. I love Phil, though. We are both from Detroit.

FR: Do you feel you have any secret or conspicuous flaws as a writer?

TJ: I don’t think I do personal poems very well.  I think there are some things in my aesthetic that may not be in other people’s aesthetic, such as alliteration. Sometimes I just wallow in it, just roll around in it. I have to check myself.

FR: What was the first poem you wrote in leadbelly?

TJ: It was the one where he is in Red River. He’s run away and they send a dog after him. And he drowns the dog. That was the first poem. It kind of came out of nowhere in a way.

FR: What was the last poem?

TJ: After I finished the book, they wanted me to chop off the last section. My publishers did. The very last poem I had written a year or so ahead of time, then I decided [it] was going to be at the end.

FR: Why?

TJ: Because it is positioned at his christening. I think it is interesting to hear him talk about how he got his name at the end of the book. It is about being broken in a lot of ways.  It is a story about coming into one’s identity.

Jessica Kinnison lives in New Orleans, LA.  Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Juked, Cossack Review, Pif Magazine Anthology 2013, and The Southern Humanities Review, among others. Her story “Bone on Bone” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012.




American poet Tyehimba Jess entered the MFA program at New York University in 2002 with half of his poetry book leadbelly written. His colleagues knew what he was going to bring to every workshop—another leadbelly poem.

leadbelly (2005) follows the story of Louisiana-born folk singer Huddie William Ledbetter, born in 1885, from Shreveport, LA to Texas to Angola Prison to New York City. leadbelly was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and was voted one of the top three books of the year by Black Issues Book Review.

A two-time winner of the Chicago Green Mill Slam team, Jess was Chicago’s ambassador to Accra, Ghana. He is the author of African American Pride: Celebrating our Achievements, Contributions and Enduring Legacy (2003), and his work has been featured in numerous anthologies. A Cave Canem Alumni, he received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and won a 2006 Whiting Award. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TedX Nashville Conference. Currently, he is Assistant Professor of English at College of Staten Island.

I interviewed Jess immediately following his reading at the Allegheny County Jail as part of Chatham University’s Words Without Walls Black Writers Series. He visited to tell the story of how Leadbelly’s music lives in each of us as Americans. He says, “At least people are saying his name. They are saying his name.”

.

The Fourth River: Why do you write and for whom?

Tyehimba Jess: I used to write for political purposes strictly. I was interested in writing poems that would inspire people to take political action. That’s what “when niggas love Revolution like they love the bulls” is all about. Those poems were for black people.  But you know you can’t control who reads your work.

So, after a while, I came to accept the idea that I was writing for everybody. Even when I thought I was writing for black people, not all black people agreed with what I was writing. It is difficult to say that you are writing for one particular group of people.  It can limit your imagination. After a while, I was like, “OK, I am writing for the entire world.” I think that later on, it became about writing for me.

The more I write, the more I realize it is about conveying a message. My poetry is pretty clear. Generally, you know what I am writing about by the end of a poem. I try to write that way. But it is working internally, as well.

When I am doing these poems, these syncopated sonnets and all that, I think I am trying to find a way to tell two different stories in one breath. I am looking for metaphors beyond the rhetorical that link into the shape of the poem and [into] the way the poem is read on the page.

FR: What do you think of the academic world as a space for writers?

TJ: I am part of a few different streams of poetry phenomena that are having an effect on the way poetry is being perceived in academia. One is slam: slam was started because of a man named Mark Smith in Chicago who was really disenchanted with the way poetry in academia was presenting itself as a kind of boutique, elite pastime that was not interested in connecting with the ordinary Joe Schmo on the street.

I think that the brilliant thing about Mark is that he was able to start this institution that’s very simple, very organic and really, in a way, doesn’t get the kind of credit in academia that it deserves for its impact on American poetry.

He’s one of those people who deserves a MacArthur grant because he saw a need and he filled it in a very simple way, in a way that answered the call of so many people who were interested. He helped throngs and throngs of people to understand that poetry doesn’t have to be outside of their grasp. It doesn’t have to be something that is performed by other people. They can perform it.

Whatever complaints people may have about slam, it brought poetry to the people and the same with Cave Canem. It’s an institution for black poets started by Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady that really eliminated the isolation that so many black poets felt on a fundamental level. The thing about Cave Canem is that it created a connection for black poets nationally and internationally that enabled us to grow at a rate we would not have been able to obtain without that community.

FR: Why did you choose poetry as your form for leadbelly? It reads like a novel.

TJ: First off, I am not as good at fiction as I am at poetry. I seem to be more geared toward saying a certain thing in a certain amount of time. leadbelly is almost all prose poems when he is speaking. Partly because I thought of him in terms of prose, really simply and not all enjambed. You know, it is prosaic and it follows a particular arc. It is linear in that respect. I think those are reasons it seems like a novel, in a way.

FR: Philip Larkin once wrote, “the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.” In your case, what are you preserving in your poems?

TJ: Yes, I guess I am in the business of historical preservation. There were a few things I was trying to preserve. One was Leadbelly’s legacy but also the idea of the work that the old music has done for us.  When I say “us,” I mean nationally what that work has done.

That legacy continues. The thing I think about a lot is the roots of the music, particularly in regard to the African community and the African-American contribution. With this new work I am doing, it is beyond the music. It is about theater and literature as well. When you look at the intellectual property, so much of that property has been generated from the black community.

Paying homage to Leadbelly, trying to present a portrait of his life, to me, meant recalling the pain and the joy that went into making that music. It lies at the bottom of American music. So I guess I’m back where Philip Larkin was: at the bottom of his preservation.

FR: So under everything is the need to preserve?

TJ: Yes, I would say that. Continue that story forward. Just having people say the word “Leadbelly” today in 2013, I am glad to be a part of that. And it’s not just him; it is the story and everything that the story entails, that idea, that aesthetic.

FR: You were a DJ at the University of Chicago for 10 years.  Who were some of the people you played most?

TJ: Man, I played so many people: Alice Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock, Art Ensemble of Chicago. I think the beautiful thing about Chicago is that they have something called AACM. It is really sort of an avant-garde arts organization.  I was very privileged to see these guys walking around the neighborhood. Overseas, they were superstars. You know, they were just phenomenal musicians. So I got the opportunity to see them on a regular basis. Lester Boyd, Malichi Favors, I got to see Sun Ra a couple times, Fred Anderson.

There was a little bar called the Velvet Lounge. It’s still there. It was the best music in Chicago. It was very cheap. The musical legacy in Chicago was wonderful. Then you also had the blues musicians. So my show started out as all jazz. Then it started to include blues, too. Like I played Muddy Waters, then I’d play John Coltrane, then I’d play some Sun Ra, then I’d go all the way back in the shed to get some Robert Johnson. I’d go back and forth and back and forth. I was playing with what Amiri Baraka would call “The Music,” the idea of the genres of music just drifting together into a continuum, especially with jazz and blues. I loved it. Then I would do interviews with political prisoners, prisoners of war and activists.

FR: I noticed that you use variations on blues phrases in leadbelly like “black snake moan.” Did you put them in while you were writing or did you go back and texturize the piece with common blues phrases?

TJ: It was probably a combination of the two. It’s kind of like the first pass: I go through a poem and have these weak words and stronger words. I take out words that are not contributing to the energy of the poem, and I think about words that could make the poem more active or add to the texture, and I go back and throw in a lot of other allusions. I try to reach in as many directions as I can. Some of them come naturally and those are the ones that I am actually more weary of because they are more likely to be cliché. If they are clichés, I try to come back and change them up a little.

FR: Do you think people who don’t listen to blues would notice blues phrases?

TJ: It’s hard for me to say what people’s perception of blues is. I think partly because I have been listening to it for so long. It is hard for me to detach myself from the lack of understanding regarding blues. If you were to say the word “blues” to most people, maybe one of the words that would come to their minds is “Eric Clapton” or “B.B. King” or “guitar” or the opening of the Dave Chapelle show. So there are a lot of standard images that people come up with. I am trying to write either against that or to deepen that understanding. I think that is true with anybody. If you were to say “polka music,” I probably wouldn’t know that much. I should. I think “accordion.” That is part of my charge to understand how all those musics can relate.

FR: How did your perspective on the book change after you went to Shreveport for the first time?

The most important thing I did there was visit his grave. I also met his grandniece. He is buried in this churchyard that is off of a dirt path that is off a dirt path that is off of a one-lane road. It’s way the fuck out. He died in New York but he was buried down there. It gave me an impression of where he walked. Of course, I was seeing Shreveport past its heyday. I could still see the streets and soak in the atmosphere. It was good to see the places I had written about.

I always felt guilty about the ability to claim that territory. I wanted to treat it with the respect it deserves. I wanted to treat him and the place that he came from with respect. I felt like it was incumbent upon me to give it a visit and say “Hello.” So, in a way, it gave me a kind of permission to continue on that journey of seeking out the details of his legacy.

FR: Is it true your immediate family would not exist without the Great   Migration?

TJ: You could say the same thing for probably at least half of black people in America today. The South was repressive. The North was repressive but in a different way.

FR: Michele Norris said that her parents didn’t talk about the South because they didn’t want to put rocks in their children’s pockets. If they put that anger in their pockets, it would weigh them down. Your parents were active in the community and also in race relations. How did that affect you and your writing?

TJ: It affected me in several ways. One is my dad is an avid, avid reader. He probably had 30 magazine subscriptions and books all around the house all the time. Both of them were very intent on having us read. I have an older brother and an older sister. My brother went to Michigan. My sister went to MIT. I think that my parents’ support and insistence upon college and that exposure to the necessity of reading at a very young age affected me.

As far as their relationships with their hometowns: I went down to visit my grandmother in Greenville, South Carolina when I was a kid. It was like visiting another planet.  This was in the 1970s. Greenville at that time was not the Greenville it is now. It is really a big, bustling city now. Back then, it was not a big place. There was a dirt road in front of my grandma’s house.

My dad didn’t talk very much about (well he didn’t talk that much at all) about South Carolina and his life down there. And my mother would talk about Oklahoma to a certain degree; she still does.

I think that their attitude was similar to what you are talking about. When you look at it, it really was like going from one country to another country. I mean, my dad was in the Confederate state—South Carolina. He still has his high school diploma. The signature on it is Strom Thurmond’s. My dad is 80 years old. It was like an entirely different land of opportunity. There is no way my father would have been able to work for the Department of Public Health in South Carolina at that time. There is just no way; it would not have been possible.

My mother left Oklahoma because she could not attend the nursing schools there. My mom also lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. She graduated before those nine students marched up the steps to that high school. Their attitude was the one of most black folks at that time: they wanted to get out.

FR: You changed your name legally in 1999. What did your parents think about that?

TJ: They were reluctantly accepting of it. I was living as Jesse Goodwin before I changed it, formally, in 1999, but [informally, starting in 1992], everybody called me Tyehimba Jess. You will be surprised how quickly you find yourself around nobody who knows your original name. It caught on within a couple years.  By the time it became legal, it had pretty much already happened anyway.

FR: Tyehimba means “we stand as a nation.” What does that mean to you?

TJ: I got it from a book in college. I took a lot of time trying to find a word that would be appropriate. This word, to me, infused the idea of black self-determination. You know, working together to achieve various and sundry goals. On the other hand, I didn’t want to completely abandon my family in that process. I was disturbed by our name being Goodwin because it was passed down from a slave owner. So I decided to keep my first name and make it my last name. My first name was Jesse, and that is my father’s name and his father’s name.

FR: Did your writing change once you changed your name?

TJ: My name came slowly.

FR: The name was your public persona and slowly became your private persona?

TJ: I think I was part of the last generation to change our names to African names. I mean, I don’t know what 20 year-olds are doing now, but I don’t think they are changing their names to African names. Many of the artists at that time were changing their names if not legally, informally. So it was not a unique thing.

The good thing about it is that I did not change my name more than once and I really carefully considered it before [the change]. I waited for seven years before I made it legal. So I had a long time to live with it. The decision to make it legal, to me, meant that I could stop leading a double life. Stop being Tyehimba Jess until I needed a check signed. It seemed inauthentic. I didn’t consider the name inauthentic. I considered the state’s right to claim what my name was illegitimate. One of my questions was whether or not to give the state that legitimacy, but after a while, I knew that, practically, it was the thing to do.

FR: Where did you start on the page when writing the syncopated sonnet about the twins?

TJ:  I started with the middle. I finished the middle because really the middle is based off of another poem I did called “Blind Tom.” It was the first one I made that went down and back. It was about Blind Tom being buried in two different locations. So, when it came to the McCoy Twins, I was wracking my brain as to how to approach talking about them.

I guess the form and the subject matter came simultaneously. I thought, well, I will mimic the shape of their bodies. So how can I do that? I already had the Blind Tom thing, so I thought I could reverse the polarity to have two heads and one middle. Then I can come up and have one head and two middles. So I did one and I did another one and another one. Those things are like a puzzle.

FR: You said that you don’t write in forms, but there are many forms in leadbelly.

TJ: I guess the counterpointes I’m doing are forms. I also call them double-jointed. That crown of sonnets in the book was the first set of poems in form I ever wrote. The thing about sonnets is that they are long enough to say something and short enough to get to the point. At this point in our history, sonnets can be unrhymed and all kinds of stuff. Fourteen lines, oh, it’s a sonnet. It’s got this kind of elasticity to it. And the rhyme scheme can be as strict as you want it to be and as loose as you want it to be. I am going for the story, in particular.

FR: Which professors did you study with at NYU?

TJ: Philip Levine, Marie Howe, and Sharon Olds.

FR: Did any of those teachers give you a major suggestion for leadbelly that you rejected?

TJ: Yes, Phil Levine told me to put the book in third person. I seriously considered that for a long time. And I couldn’t do it. It was difficult. In that class, I agreed with 99 percent of the things he said. He is a very, very sharp guy. It was hard to do that when I first rolled up in there. I couldn’t do it. It was not a physical thing. It was a mental thing. For me, that is the trope of the book. It would have lost immediacy. I love Phil, though. We are both from Detroit.

FR: Do you feel you have any secret or conspicuous flaws as a writer?

TJ: I don’t think I do personal poems very well.  I think there are some things in my aesthetic that may not be in other people’s aesthetic, such as alliteration. Sometimes I just wallow in it, just roll around in it. I have to check myself.

FR: What was the first poem you wrote in leadbelly?

TJ: It was the one where he is in Red River. He’s run away and they send a dog after him. And he drowns the dog. That was the first poem. It kind of came out of nowhere in a way.

FR: What was the last poem?

TJ: After I finished the book, they wanted me to chop off the last section. My publishers did. The very last poem I had written a year or so ahead of time, then I decided [it] was going to be at the end.

FR: Why?

TJ: Because it is positioned at his christening. I think it is interesting to hear him talk about how he got his name at the end of the book. It is about being broken in a lot of ways.  It is a story about coming into one’s identity.


Jessica Kinnison lives in New Orleans, LA.  Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Juked, Cossack Review, Pif Magazine Anthology 2013, and The Southern Humanities Review, among others. Her story “Bone on Bone” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012.