Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Adam Sol: A conversation ending with a poem

LH: What was the inspiration for Jeremiah?

AS: There were a few different inspirations. First, I wanted to experiment with a highly rhetorical, loud voice, as a response to a mild frustration with the leading line of contemporary poetic voices that are subtle, lyrical, contemplative and quiet. Second, I’ve often been inspired by the biblical prophets (my first book was called Jonah’s Promise...), and as I learned more and more about Jeremiah, something really spoke to me about his circumstances and his character. And then, most importantly, were the events of Sept 11, 2001, which inspire the book indirectly and directly, and gave me a sense of urgency about the project. Not that the book is a gloss on the events — on the contrary. To my mind, the book is a kind of gloss of a gloss, a vision of Jeremiah’s vision, as seen through Bruce.

LH: Adam, as it happens, I was in Washington Square Park one day when a group of Mennonites from Ohio arrived to both show support to New Yorkers post 9/11 and also to preach. It was a very strange moment, particularly as the group seemed genuinely awestruck and delighted by the energy in the park. Jeremiah doesn’t appear at all taken by the big apple. I bring that up partly to query the relationship between the Americas we see—the Midwest vs. the Big East as it were—but also because there seems to be something very attractive about the biblical voice, it’s almost Talmudic as opposed to the Whitmanesque sweep. Can you comment on the relationship of voice to place?

AS: I disagree that Jeremiah isn’t taken by the big apple. He calls it “the center of iniquity,” but he’s also charmed by it, too. I think he is taken with a certain kind of New York: the old workmanlike New York of construction sites and immigrants in night school. But he also recognizes it at the center of what he thinks is wrong with the world, that’s true. Jeremiah loves people the way a disappointed grandfather loves people, with that powerless passion. And that’s all the more true in NYC, where he doesn’t exactly speak a language that the people can understand.

One of the remarkable things about the period just post-9/11 was that everyone suddenly loved New York again, even in the MidWest, which has so many reasons to resent it. The loud, brash, arrogant and unabashedly world-dominating city that everyone loves to hate was suddenly vulnerable, resilient, shattered. And to my mind, it took a biblical voice to understand—not to understand 9/11, exactly, but to understand our reaction to it. I don’t want to make too much of the events – subsequent history has made our understanding of them much more complicated and ambivalent. But I did – do – feel that there’s something about a MidWesterner with a prophetic voice being somehow the appropriate voice to respond to the legacy of our reaction to the events.

LH: I like how you have played with form as well as narrative. Not many contemporary poets do that. Recently Ange Mlinko in Poetry Magazine drafted a manifesto of the single poem, for example, saying she wouldn't write long poems or connecting poems. But one of the key features of Canadian poetry, it seems to me, is the long poem, and the book length poem. What's different about your take from most Canadian long poems however, is the attention not only to narrative and form, but the use of received forms. You really get a number of very different formal poems in here while maintaining the narrative--not an easy task. Can you talk about how the poems came together?

AS: I mischievously wonder if part of the reason why there do seem to be more project-books in contemporary Canadian poetry is that we fight for book-project grants while American poets tend to seek cv-padding lists of publication credits for job applications and tenure reviews. What do you think?

As for how the poems came together: honestly, I had the character of Jeremiah clear in my mind pretty early on in the process of writing the book (which began in the spring of 1999). He’s the most recognizable voice in the book, for sure, but he wasn’t the hardest one for me, once I got him going. As a series of voice-experiments started to develop a narrative arc and a series of circumstances, events, whathaveyou, the other character (Bruce) slowly and painfully emerged, as did a whack of poems that seemed to come from different efforts to “get at” the story. Some of those made their way into the book. Many did not. Because I’d never written a novel before, I tried to approach it with all the poetic tools I felt like I could get my hands on. I had it in my mind that Bruce may have been interested in syllabic poetries, which led me in that direction. But there were probably some ways in which I wanted the book to have what a friend of mine calls “tour-de-force-y” poems in it too. Some way for some of the poems in the book to reach outward beyond the story. I’ve read Moby Dick three times over the course of writing Jeremiah, Ohio and there was undoubtedly something of the “encyclopedic narrative” working in my brain, although none of the stamina, obviously. But maybe I’m just kidding myself on that score.

LH: But I come back to the rare use of singular forms in longer narratives and marvel at the success of it. I read some poems to my class recently and I was very happy to have the villanelle to Jeremiah’s son because it really spoke to them, it illustrated what I was trying to say about bending the form to other needs. They were also taken by “Ashland Radio” for the way it uses song titles to narrative ends. Form itself isn’t enough. These are poems that stand alone as well as fulfilling the narrative duty of pulling the story forward. It’s quite a feat. Can you talk about that a little? Did the order change when building the book, for example?

AS: I’m very glad to hear that the poems work outside of the context of the book as well as fulfilling the narrative. The villanelle in that case seemed to make sense because trauma and grief are so repetitive. I suspect that not all of the poems stand on their own quite as well. As for putting the book together: once I had a narrative arc in my head – getting from the Ohio wanderings to New York – some of the ordering was pretty straightforward. I had places to write about, and things Jeremiah wanted to say, and Bruce was generally there to lead us. And I’ve done that drive – from Cincinnati East across Pennsylvania to New York and New England – that I could call up that material fairly quickly. But other things were more complicated, because I did write the poems over a long period, and there were inconsistencies to iron out and developments that I wanted to highlight – about Jeremiah’s self-doubt, for instance, and about how much he trusts and reveals to Bruce. Sometimes I had three or four poems in a sequence that needed to be fitted into the manuscript as a whole – the sequence around the villanelle, for instance, in which Jeremiah talks about his son. But there were other poems that just happened and demanded a space in the manuscript, and I just had to work them in.

By the end, when most of the manuscript was written, I did have some places when I had straightforward narrative work that Bruce had to do: I had to get them from the moment J cracked at the CVS on 96th and Broadway to somewhere midtown, for instance. And I took on that poem with that “assignment,” which was very odd. I’d never written a poem with that sort of assignment in mind. But I tried to let things happen within that structure – things Bruce would be aware of, or see, or consider – that would occur more organically. It was a balancing act, especially at the end, because I didn’t want the poems to sound too programmed. Of course some of Bruce’s poems don’t have to stand on their own as much, but they still had to have a certain lyric integrity.

LH: Recently we did a panel together in Chicago at which you and Alessandro Porco suggested that there was no Canadian literature. You yourself are American, living now in Canada, but would you first of all, call yourself a Canadian poet, and secondly, expand on why you think there is no Canadian poetry?

AS: Did I say that? I remember Alex saying it but I don’t remember agreeing with him. I definitely think that there are a variety of “Canadian poetries” happening, some of which I’m interested and some less so. Because much of my initial “poetic training” had nothing Canadian in it — certainly nothing self-consciously Canadian in it — I’m pretty late to the game on thinking of myself as a “Canadian poet.” This is even more true because I live in Toronto, arguably the most un-Canadian of Canadian cities. That is to say that Toronto has much more in common with Chicago or Boston than it does with Timmins or Regina or Gander.
One thing I do remember saying is that because to some extent Canadian writers live in a “smaller pond” than Americans, there’s a bit more time for apprenticeship, for not feeling like you have to be born fully-grown, as I think is true for some American artists. Think of how hard the literary media made life for Jonathan Safran Foer after his outstanding first novel, imperfect as it is, came out with such fanfare and celebration. I think there’s a similar pressure being put on a poet like Matt Zapruder as “the next big thing,” which can be hard to live up to. So if I’m Canadian now, it’s because I live in and enjoy a Canadian literary scene which I think of as nourishing, and which has treated me pretty nicely thus far. I’m still new to the neighborhood, and will never be native, but I feel at home, and have been welcomed as much as I can ask. What’s the Lyle Lovett song?: “That’s right, you’re not Canadian, but Canada wants you anyway...”?

LH: One word description of your poetics?

AS: Orchestral.

LH: Who are you reading? What do you recommend?

AS: I’m in the heat of the semester, and am therefore mostly reading for class these days, including Henry Roth’s great great great novel Call It Sleep. And revisiting a touch of Neruda, which is a treat. What do I recommend? Depends on to whom. To you? Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Oh, do you mean books?

By the way, I should mention that just opening up the book of Jeremiah – or any of the prophets, really – would be a frustrating experience for most readers, because the narrative is jumbled and refers to events and characters who won’t be familiar. There are lots of good intros to individual books, but as long as I’m on the subject, for Jeremiah, I’d recommend Sheldon Blank’s really helpful Jeremiah: Man and Prophet. Really helped me to appreciate the poetry and complexity of the book.

LH: Can we end with a poem? Can you choose one?

AS: I don’t usually get to read from the end of the book at readings, so I’ll choose this one from when Jeremiah gets arrested and is speaking to his fellow inmates:


Fear not, young men of Judah!
We will be hauled from this hole by the shoulders.
Yea, we will be lifted like infants.

What sins you have committed before the Mayor,
He will commute.
Your fatal errors will not compute.

Here, take this ticket and stumble home
like the rest of the fumblers and tumblers.

Friends, I have seen you in your oblivion.
I know of your petty theft and possession,
and I have sent a shock to shake you.

Look around and tell me you see no message.

Behold I have marched from the marshes,
and fled from fields to tell you this.

It is a big day, good sons. Yea, a whopper.
Do not fail your ancestors who knew destruction
like an annoying uncle at the table.
Nay, yield not to your usual sad-sack escapisms.

Be steadfast with your spirits!
Do not neglect to floss!

The ink on your hand is a stain on your hearts.
Cleanse not with the cleanser, but with your tongues!

We had been spared the scary until now.
Let us not flinch before the mighty needle delivers
its purging medicine.

Adam Sol is, most recently, the author of Jeremiah, Ohio, a novel in poems published by House of Anansi Press. His previous books are Jonah’s Promise, which won MidList Press’s First Series Book Award for Poetry; and Crowd of Sounds, which won Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry in 2004. He is also the author of numerous essays and reviews for publications as various as The Globe and Mail, The Forward, Critique and CNQ. His work has been featured on Nextbook.com, Poetry Daily, and the CBC radio program “The Next Chapter.” Originally from Connecticut, he holds an MFA from Indiana University, as well as a PhD from the University of Cincinnati, and is an Assistant Professor of English at Laurentian University, Georgian College. He lives in Toronto with his wife and their three sons.

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