An Interview with A. Van Jordan
Photography credit: Do Pham
A. Van Jordan is the author of five collections of poetry, including The Cineaste, a finalist for the NAACP Image Award, and M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and a Lannan Literary Award, among other honors. He is a professor of creative writing at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.
At once a stunning inquiry into the roots of racist violence and a moving recognition of the joy of Black youth before the world takes hold, When I Waked, I Cried to Dream Again expresses the preciousness and precarity of life…In this astonishing volume of poems and lyric prose, Whiting Award–winner A. Van Jordan draws comparisons to Black characters in Shakespearean plays—Caliban and Sycorax from The Tempest, Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus, and the eponymous antihero of Othello—to mourn the deaths of Black people, particularly Black children, at the hands of police officers. What do these characters, and the ways they are defined by the white figures who surround them, have in common with Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and other Black people killed in the twenty-first century? —W.W. Norton Press
Purchase When I Waked, I Cried to Dream Again through W.W. Norton’s website.
Anthony Borruso: There are a lot of moments early in this new collection that feel as if they are struggling to either find language for something unspeakable or to transcend language altogether. This is apparent in your epigraph from Robert Hayden’s “[American Journal],” a poem in which an alien comes to observe and report on Americans, seeing them as a “baffling multi people [of] extremes and variegations.” At the poem's end, the alien throws up his hands (or maybe his tentacles?), admitting “much violence much that repels i am attracted / none the less their variousness their ingenuity / their elan vital and that some thing essence / quiddity i cannot penetrate or name.” Something similar occurs in that first poem “Hex,” in which you depict the enchanted maternal figure Sycorax from The Tempest, as she hones a language that blends curse, prayer, and the traditional poetic invocation. You say, “Let her wield / the words of black declensions, new vowels, / the best nouns of home training, of damn good sense.” How does this longing for language provide a foundation for your collection? Also, what do these particular literary references tell us about the poems to come?
A. Van Jordan: First of all, thanks for reading so closely and for asking these questions. But yes, because Sycorax is referenced a good deal but never seen on stage in The Tempest, I wanted to open with her voice. I wanted to get her out on stage first. There’s this device that Shakespeare often uses where certain characters will have other characters talk about them before they even appear. Those characters set up who this person is and how the audience sees them. And so, when Hamlet first appears, for example, before we see him, the first time his name is referenced it’s with the adjective “valiant.” We hear about the “valiant Hamlet.” And with Shakespeare’s Black characters, such as Othello, Caliban, and Aaron, there are all these presuppositions before they show up on stage, and they're all negative.
There’s definitely no reason why we should think negatively about Othello, but Iago still manages to do great damage to his name. He’s completely besmirched in the first scene so that by the time he shows up, he is a complete anti-hero. What we’re working from is this presupposition of who they are; to answer your question more completely, I wanted Sycorax in that first poem because I wanted her to bless the journey, and also to work her magic by dispelling those presuppositions about these figures at the very outset. I wanted her to clear away any ill spirits before the start of the reading process. Tamir Rice, who appears in the first section as well, is like one of these characters. If you see his face, he’s a pretty cherubic-looking little boy. I've looked at a number of pictures of him, and there's none in which I look at him and think, that’s a grown man. But when the police heard the dispatch call, they said that there was a man in the park brandishing a gun. When they get to the park, they see this little boy sitting under a gazebo. They pull their car up on the grass, then up to the gazebo, coming in fast, and the kid gets up. He starts walking toward them, and before the car even settles to a stop, they shoot him dead from the car window. It takes less than two seconds. I can’t help but think—this is just like these characters in a Shakespeare play. AB: Yes. And structurally, that presupposition is almost built into the very shape of your collection, not just through those Shakespearean character introductions, but also in terms of your definition poems, a form that you took from an earlier collection M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A in which you define a word and then use it in example sentences that complicate and reframe its meaning(s). By putting these poems at the start of your sections, you show how language itself is often morally and ethically bent against Black folks.
AVJ: Yeah, exactly. And it has been for some time. But where does this emanate from? You can see this by looking at the Early Modern stage and the different plays and references there. Or you can think about something like the word “fair” or the phrase “Grandfather Clause,” which sometimes is used pretty blithely now. We hear it all the time, and it always sounds discordant to me, but then I realized I don't think anyone else knows why this doesn't sound right. It was in the course of a week, I heard it twice, and I thought, okay, I have to write about this.
AB: In your notes, you mention that you envision “Hex” as a response to the question at the end of Amiri Baraka’s “Ka’ Ba”: “What will be / the sacred word?” I feel Baraka’s presence throughout the collection as he is someone who often spoke back to and reinterpreted canonical literary texts through a Black American lens. There’s also a section in the middle of your book that connects your youth in Akron, Ohio to Malian culture in the ‘60s which reminded me of the complicated and dynamic ways in which Baraka relates to African culture. Did Baraka help to guide you in thinking through these relationships and finding the language you needed?
AVJ: Yeah, I would have to say that Baraka has helped guide me through language throughout my career. He’s one of those North Stars I continually return to. I think it's easy for someone to look at Robert Hayden and think, okay, well, he uses form and certain syntactic structures that clearly influenced my work, but also when I think about subject matter and approach and just the ways in which we think through subjects, there's something that Baraka does that he doesn’t get enough credit for. There’s something philosophical about his approach to the writing.
AB: Definitely. I can see that.
AVJ: After doing my book Quantum Lyrics, people would say, “Oh, I never seen a collection of poems that used comic book superheroes,” but the first comic book poem I’d ever read was Baraka’s Green Lantern poem. So yes, he’s always there. He’s just one of those poets that I read a lot early on, and I keep returning to him and finding new mysteries in a lot of his work. And his prose as well is brilliant. I’d put it up there with Baldwin.
AB: Yes, and his drama too. I recently read and then I saw a version of The Dutchman. Have you ever seen that? It’s an amazing play with an unbelievably brutal ending. To me, it almost felt like something you’d see in a Jordan Peele film. It reminded me a lot of Get Out.
AVJ: It really is. It comes from the same frame of mind. That’s the thing, and yet the enterprise that is happening there is very different from what one might see in a Peele film.
AB: I also think of Baraka as very interested in speaking back to older writers like Shakespeare. He has a quote somewhere where he says something along the lines of “I’ve had enough of that Hamlet bullshit.” Is performing this kind of irreverent backtalking a goal of yours?
AVJ: I think Shakespeare and other folks from “the canon” can all be talked about, but the problem with how they’re taught—or, the problem with how they have been taught—can be seen through a lens of hagiography. If you begin by declaring them as God-like literary figures, every other voice must be a disciple, or they are excommunicated—which is what happened with the Western Canon. So, if someone is dying to teach, say, Ezra Pound’s ass, then they need to be ready to talk about his warts and all.
But yes, if I’m understanding your question, I guess what I would say is that, initially, I think the meditation for me was whether I was going to do an Auden-like The Sea and the Mirror type of thing, where I’m trying to rewrite Shakespeare in some way, and I thought there’s been so much of that. I don't know how useful that is. I’m more drawn to the ideas surrounding Shakespeare’s characters and how they play out in the power dynamics between them, and so that was enough. I didn’t feel like I had to take much of his language and incorporate it. Instead, I wanted to think about how this plays out today, and how language drift can bring his words into a contemporary context in troubling ways. But, primarily, I wanted to think about how this plays out today.
AB: I feel like Melba Higginbottom, the Shakespearian scholar character that you created in this collection, becomes a device to do that, allowing you to ask, who are the black folks that exist in the white imagination? Shakespeare is also a frame for us to see that. As you were looking at his books and thinking through them from this critical perspective, what was the most compelling thing that you felt about his Black characters that you wanted to delve into?
With Shakespeare though, in the context of his time, what he was doing, the fact that he was even writing about a Moor in power was kind of revolutionary and subversive. Irrespective of whether the characters in the play have something negative to say about these characters, I think that there is a real argument for Shakespeare having a sense of the beauty and the humanity in his Black characters.
AVJ: If I had a conversation with anyone about The Tempest, it immediately went to colonialism. With Othello it was—this brother with this white woman gets his comeuppance…blah, blah, blah. So, I thought the thing I was really curious about was whether people in today’s world thought Shakespeare was racist, and it becomes very hard to make a case for that directly. There's different literature—plays, movies, and scholarly criticism—that I can look at now, in a more contemporary context, and I can make that case fairly easily. With Shakespeare though, in the context of his time, what he was doing, the fact that he was even writing about a Moor in power was kind of revolutionary and subversive.
Irrespective of whether the characters in the play have something negative to say about these characters, I think that there is a real argument for Shakespeare having a sense of the beauty and the humanity in his Black characters. Even if it’s a character like Aaron The Moor, who no one has anything good to say about. But when you look at Aaron, he actually is given much more motivation for his actions than Iago, a similar antagonist. There's no explanation for Iago. He’s just pure evil. And yet people say, it’s really Iago’s play, he’s so brilliant. And when they talk about Aaron the Moor he’s just dastardly; he’s described as this reprobate.
However, Aaron the Moor is actually pushing against the power structure that he’s living within by the only means that he knows, which is subterfuge. He outwits everyone around him. He’s depicted by the other characters as a barbarian, but there is this dramatic irony that we see since Aaron is much more of a mastermind than the others make him out to be. It’s like he’s using psychological jujitsu on the other characters. Or, if you look at The Tempest where Caliban has the most lyrical and eloquent lines in the play, yet it’s supposed to be Prospero’s play. There are things like that you can look at and see that there is a point of view that is clearly the point of view of a Black character, which Shakespeare is able to manage in a way that a lot of contemporary writers still struggle with.
AB: Yeah, and it was an odd experience too because I hadn't read Titus Andronicus before coming to your collection, but as I was reading through its description on Wikipedia, I was like, wow, this is one of the most vicious stories I've ever heard.
AVJ: Haha, yeah, it’s like Saw. It’s a complete slasher film.
AB: So you just mentioned how Caliban has all these highly lyrical lines that stood out to you, did you know that you were going to take his line: “When I Waked, I Cried to Dream Again” as your title early on in your process of putting together this book?
AVJ: No. Initially, I thought “Such Sweet Thunder” was gonna be the title. Because I was thinking more about the beauty of youth and wanted to emphasize the erasure of Black joy and play. But then I realized: yes, that’s true, but I think the larger theme of the book is more about wanting to find this safe space of your own in a world that you can live in freely. For many people, they only experience that in their dreams. I wanted to privilege that.
AB: It seems like the movie theater in your previous collection The Cineaste was that safe space. And while that book is an ode, in a way, to the communal and imaginative experience of watching films, this one seemed more equivocal in its feelings on the video image. It leaves the joyful surreality of the theatre to engage with the grisly realism contained within footage of police brutality. In the “Tamir Rice Case,” you mention having watched the video of his murder “many times now” and the reader can almost sense the pain of trying to understand how and why this happened, the desire to rewrite what’s seen there. Later in “Bored, Tamir chooses to dream,” you do this in a way by describing “Once a boy dreams, there’s no limit / to where he might soar off, above / pointing fingers and straining voice….” This image reminded me of a poem from The Cineaste entitled “The Red Balloon” which takes its name from French director Albert Lamorrise’s film. In it, you describe a young boy floating away amongst a bouquet of balloons, over “skinned-kneed jealousies” and the open mouths of his friends. Do you see these two poems and, perhaps, these two manuscripts in conversation with each other in terms of how they engage with the video medium?
AVJ: I think, in many ways, they’re in conversation. In my poem and the film “The Red Balloon,” there is the idea of a young child having a certain freedom to imagine and having others trying to quash that freedom to play, which is a thing that keeps coming up for me in many ways. It’s just one of those things that I keep looking at and I find that the older I get, the more I feel a desire to protect that when I see young people. I don’t know how you can be middle-aged and not want to protect them from this world.
AB: There is also a lot of emphasis in this collection on shadows, obscurities, and different manifestations of lack, an idea that film critics have again and again tied to the experience of cinema, which stimulates the senses, but ultimately withholds the real objects that were filmed from the viewer. The Russian writer and critic Maxim Gorky, in one of the earliest extant film reviews (1896), describes the movie theater as an unsettling “kingdom of shadows,... [where] every thing…is dipped in monotonous grey….It is not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its soundless spectre.” Is it this disturbing and inscrutable alternate world that you are trying to conjure in the opening of “Fragments of Tamir’s Body,” where you write “the body’s shadow / had much to say, / but no one in earshot / understood its language?”
I think that there's a way in which the world that we live in is also the Shadow World. The reason there's so much disinformation and miscommunication between people is that I think we all see things through our own experiential shadows.
AVJ: It's funny you mentioned Gorky because I think of him as someone who seems much more voluble than his friend Chekhov. Gorky, of course, was limited by the earliest form of this new art form: short, silent films. That year, 1896, Russia was just getting to see film for the first time. They wouldn’t have a feature until the early 20th century. The big breakthrough films, Cabiria (1914) and, embarrassingly, Birth of a Nation (1915), and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) come later. Gorky dies in 1936. But I’d argue that Chekhov’s sense of scene and structure—in his stories, I’m saying—is more aligned with and anticipates the movement of film and the kind of intercutting our minds become acculturated to over time.
I think that there’s a way in which the world that we live in is also the Shadow World. The reason there's so much disinformation and miscommunication between people is that I think we all see things through our own experiential shadows. This is why two folks can witness something and see two different things happening even if you're both standing there witnessing it together. And I think that happens, whether we’re watching a play or a film or whether we’re watching something play out on the street corner. There are all these different camera angles to look at the moment from, and I think what happens often is that it’s like we're looking at the world through one camera angle. If you only have that one angle, it’s hard to get the full scene. What happens on a film set is that something is played out, and they will often have the characters play the scene again and again. They’ll move the camera across 180 degrees, or from one angle to the next angle. So, what we see are these different cuts of a moment. When we're experiencing things in the real world, we often forget to turn the camera around. In older movies, scene blocking and staging are privileged over cutting. With the advent of new technology, the cut gets kinda overused, in my opinion, which means the options for what we see get narrowed. That’s a significant part of the problem with the lack of discourse that we have right now.
AB: Hearing you speak about the camera in this way reminds me that you teach a course on cinema and poetics. In that course, is considering perspective a major theme? Are you trying to think through things like how your students can show their poems in another light or from another angle?
AVJ: Yes, this class is called Cinematic Movement and point of view is big in it. The main reason for that is because I think it’s something we don't talk about enough when we talk about poetry.
In fiction or any kind of prose, really, point of view is one of the first things you discuss. Poems, sometimes, we hold too close to our faces, and we start looking at line breaks, and scansion, and verbiage, and things like that, as opposed to pulling them away from our faces first and figuring out what they’re about. Figuring out, not just who is speaking, but why they are speaking. What does this speaker want us to know? Once we have that understood, we can start talking about… “Well, maybe we need this structure to help support that, or maybe we need these associative images to support this.” It may sound lofty or more intellectual than I want it to, but in the class, I try to tell people not to be too intellectual about this. Because what happens is that when we watch a movie, we’re on autopilot. We see things, and because they’re contextualized visually, we don't even think about the lighting, or the color palette, or the props in the scene. These things we start taking for granted since they’ve been completely orchestrated for us. We’re so acculturated to viewing that it washes over us. When I say to someone, let’s do a scene, and here’s the situation in the scene. What should the lighting look like? What types of props would we need here? AB: I bet they immediately know exactly what they want, right?
AVJ: It’s so immediate! And then we start talking about a poem and they start scratching their heads. I tell them, you know, it’s the same dynamic. So that's really what it’s about, trying to access that language in our minds that we already have. I tell people the first day of class: everything we're talking about you already know, and we’re just putting language to it. And that, at least sometimes, helps students settle down a bit and ease into it.
AB: As I look through your poetry collections, it’s really interesting to see how you take on such varied subjects: Shakespeare, cinema, the spelling bee champion Macnolia Montiere, and others while managing to stay faithful to core concerns like interrogating Black identity, scrutiny of racially-coded language, and emphasis on the power of the visual image. Since you’re a film lover, the best way for me to put it is that you’re an auteur, someone whose artistic signature can be felt in every line and every stanza. I wonder if there are any filmmakers (or other poets) on whom you might bestow this same term?
AVJ: Sure. I think one of the first contemporary poets that comes to mind is Victoria Chang. She writes about loss better than anyone right now. Obit, The Trees Witness Everything, and every book of hers, when you really go through it—you can see that she keeps finding new ways to talk about this. Her poems are consistently beautiful. AB: You mentioned to me before we started recording that you’re writing a new prose collection that is specifically about cinema and feelings of loss. Do you feel her voice informing this new project in any way?
AVJ: Oh yeah. I’ve been gorging on her. When I begin the writing process, she’s one of the people I like to read before I start. I generally start my day off reading and ease into the writing by reading a few of her poems or Major Jackson’s, who is another poet who I don't think people talk a lot about right now. Also, Tim Seibles. I read him a lot, and the thing about his work and Major’s, is that they write about reverie in a way that a lot of people try, but often fail to do. Tim manages to do it with a new approach every time, and yet it’s always with his distinct voice. He recently published a New and Selected called Voodoo Libretto.
AB: I love that title. What about movie poems? One that just gets me every time I read it is “An Image of Leda” by Frank O’Hara. I also really enjoy “Chaplinesque” by Hart Crane. Do you have any poems about movies that you continuously find yourself coming back to?
AVJ: You know, there’s a poem called “At the Movie: Virginia, 1956” that I can’t ever get out of my head—it’s by Ellen Bryant Voigt. It’s about her, or maybe the speaker, growing up in a segregated community in the ‘50s. She goes to the movie theater and is beginning to understand, as a teenager, this kind of separation between her and the world of Black people. She knows Black people that she likes or respects, but then she realizes that there’s a separation in their worlds in certain settings. And yet, instead of thinking that their world is not equal to hers, she realizes that this is a world that she would like to be a part of but can’t. It’s really beautiful.
AB: Yeah, that sounds like a really intriguing concept.
AVJ: And it’s one of these poems that deals with the experience of going to the movies and what that’s all about. The poem is emblematic of what I’m trying to write about—that is, the experience of watching a film and thinking about it in that way.
AB: Yeah, and going to the movies is such a stark contrast to the atomization we were talking about earlier. When people are putting on their VR headsets, or going into their iPads, or phones—I don't know how we expect anything other than bifurcating perspectives.
I think we’re losing the ability to spend time together and experience narrative, collectively. Movie theaters are closing all around us; screens, of all kinds, are in rooms of every house; and no one watches anything in real time anymore.
AVJ: I think we’re losing the ability to spend time together and experience narrative, collectively. Movie theaters are closing all around us; screens, of all kinds, are in rooms of every house; and no one watches anything in real time anymore. When I grew up, we watched TV, the one TV in the house, together as a family. Going to the movies was something you did whether your parents worked at a plant like my father did, or if you were a doctor or a teacher. We all sat in the theater together. And if there was an event like Roots, everyone watched it at the same time, and we talked about it the next day. Now, taking a family to a movie can be $100. At home, kids are on devices with headphones, and the parent might be watching something else, also with headphones. With VR, we won’t even see if someone else is in the room with us. I think we’re becoming more isolated while hoping to be more immersed. I don’t know whether I have anything to say, judgment-wise, about all of this, but I do notice it.
ANTHONY BORRUSO is pursuing his Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Florida State University where he is a Poetry Editor for Southeast Review. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and was selected as a finalist for Beloit Poetry Journal's Adrienne Rich Award by Natasha Trethewey. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Pleiades, Spillway, The Journal, THRUSH, Gulf Coast, CutBank, Frontier, and elsewhere.