This interview is published in the current issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter (#246), edited by Betsy Fagin. Subscribe to the PPNL or read back issues.
On November 27, 2015, Patricia Spears Jones and I met in my apartment to discuss the poems in her recently published book, A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems (White Pine Press). Later the interview was clipped, edited and slightly revised. These poems reflect upon Patricia’s life and the life of her contemporaries; they are lyrical, narrative, historical, sometimes prophetic, sometimes playful, but always insightful. –Barbara Henning
BH: “Wearing My Red Silk Chinese Jacket” is the first poem in your New and Selected and you wrote it in the 70’s.
PSJ: The red silk Chinese jacket was one of the most expensive things I bought early on. It is a pure silk embroidered jacket and I still have it. One day when I was wearing it as I was walking through Chinatown, these two Chinese ladies came up to me and started touching the jacket. They said, “Good, good.” In the poem I was trying to figure out what you bring to the city and what the city gives to you as I had come to the city from the South. The poem explores the ritual nature of Pentecostalism and how it remained with me. I realize now that this poem is about the great migration, but I came at the tail end of it. I came out of intellectual necessity and maybe a little bit of economic necessity, too; I mean I just had to get the fuck out of the south.
BH: In the first stanza, you talk about the Children of the Pentecost being like moles in the “city of shadows fleeing light.”
PSJ: The spaces you are negotiating are often ominous so I am trying to figure out how to talk about that. The other thing is that the shadows are beautiful. It is not always terrible to go into the darkness. I wanted to portray the people I was in Sunday school with as having these very powerful rituals and having all this dignity and being was very present in that deep intensity. That’s what I come from. I did not see this in anyone else’s work other than Henry Dumas, especially when I talk about the children of darkness.
BH: In second part of the poem , you write:
There are no dialectics when the spirit
Rips open the heart of the Children of Darkness
and takes them back through the sun to home.
PSJ: That’s where the African part comes in. That really is that moment where everybody takes flight to somewhere else, a place of liberation, exhortation and exaltation, too.
BH: Could you talk about the “Ancestress in woodblock?”
PSJ: In a museum in New Orleans I saw an actual slave block. I’d never seen one before. It was tiny. They had a lot of prints and some of the auction advertisements. They were devastating. I talk about that in the poem and also about my people coming up through South Carolina, through Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas.
BH: When I was in New Orleans in the late 80’s, there was a bar that used to be a slave exchange owned by Pierre Maspero in the 18th Century. Now it is named Café Maspero. When I was there people were drinking and partying without a sense that they were standing where human beings were traded.
PSJ: I’m not surprised. I remember watching a TV show when I was home a couple of years ago and one of the white historians said that it was great to be a white man in this country because you could own all these people and nobody told you what to do or how to get there because you were “the guy.” I don’t understand why people get surprised. If you have power you don’t want to give it up. It is either going to be taken from you or you are going to negotiate. The best description of privileged Americans in this country is by F. Scott Fitzgerald when he talks about the Buchanans and says they are careless people. We are looking at a bunch of careless people and that’s what I’m writing about here
BH: Your next section is about the mourning bench.
PSJ: Yes, it’s about my departure from the Pentecostal church because I didn’t get saved.
BH: Then you retell the Jesus story in an utterly different way:
Jesus hung with the tough guys till they bled
good and sealed him in some big tomb
Known locally as the Sepulcher. It was the drunk tank.
PSJ: I wanted to bring him down. Why is this guy hanging out with all these guys. Why isn’t he lofty? He’s not lofty. That’s what is really interesting about Jesus as a figure– he is both ordinary and a deity. The Romans thought of him as a major revolutionary which he kind of was. Then there is this other figure, the Christ figure, who says I am here to save you from sin. This is a very young person’s poem and I was being a little snarky then because I was young, maybe 26.
BH: Then the next section you write about this voluptuous nude woman– “There she sits in regal nudity…”
PSJ: I had gone to see the Gauguin exhibition. There is this famous painting of this nude woman and his face is right under her crotch. I love the visual arts. I love painting and the Gauguin myth is fascinating to me because he runs off– leaves everybody in Paris and runs off to the islands. I was trying to undermine the romantic myth of finding the exotic, finding oneself through finding the exotic. And it is kind of disgusting. That painting is both utterly beautiful and utterly horrifying.
BH: You write: “I paint her naked because she needs only skin/I paint her naked because she has beautiful breasts/& I want them to know where I supped.” It seems also like a celebration of the female body. At the same time, she is compared with the ancestress in woodblock, the woman at the slave block
PSJ: It is a celebration. It is also a way of Gauguin saying in his voice: This is how I can possess it… I wrote this a long time ago. I was trying to figure out where I was. The Chinese jacket was a great way of letting me enter into a number of stories I was encountering in my pursuit of knowledge about life, art and the connections.
BH: In the last section you refer to the suffering of Africans in the American wilderness. It seems as if you identify “Brother to Brother/Sister to Sister” but then you separate yourself with the ending: “Tell me/What has Jesus done for you?”
PSJ: All these people have gone through hell and yet there is this faith. It is a really legitimate question. Oddly enough after all these years, I now go to church. I mean my grandfather was a minister. My mother was deeply committed to the church. My sister is a minister. We are also very proud of being black Americans and participating in ways to improve our situation in this country. Everybody in my family including me in one way or another is an activist. It is a question, not an answer. There are some things you can’t answer, but you still need to ask the question.
BH: In the next poem, “The Birth of Rhythm and Blues,” you write about your life and the development of R&B.
PSJ. Writing this poem, I realized that I just love writing about music and I had a lot of fun. Some of it is about my family, but also I talk about Billie Holiday. In my first book there are three poems that are called the “Billie Holiday Chronicles.” And this is the first one.
I wanted to talk about the post-war period here. I think a lot of what we are still dealing with to this day is what happened in WW2 in the middle of the century. So many of us were born right after that. Whenever I think about how many people died around the world, millions and millions of people, and whole cities were wiped out. There had to be a whole lot of trauma and at the same time there is this amazing amount of energy that turned itself into rock and roll and rhythm and blues.
BH: You are following that development of R&B across the country with Professor Longhair taking up the piano and then you are off with the Fender and shiny tuxedos and you are moving across the country. You write about the walking wounded and the blues that come out of the wounding. Really wonderful storytelling embedded in these poems.
PSJ: I also got to play with the language a lot and I love the part where I bring in the beboppers. The orioles, the flamingos, all these bird names. There is a real sense of flight going on. When people are talking about bebop, they talk about how fast it is. When you are listening to early R&B and Count Basie, Count Basie is pretty fast, but these guys coming out of Texas, they are much faster, the beat much harder. It is different. It is just kind of amazing.
BH: “What made these people, Southern mostly, Black absolutely/churn up rhythms rich as currents in the Atlantic?”
PSJ: That’s the question behind the poem and then there is Billie, the goddess diva over it all, and she’s wounded, a wounded goddess. I grew up with all these white women as the female figures— Marilyn Monroe— as the female goddess. We were supposed to look up to them and I thought Billie Holiday was equal to them. And I thought, how can I give her that level of elevation and yet remain true to the fact that she was so wounded.
BH: Very cool. The birth of rhythm and blues through passion, suffering and ecstatic song. And then you have your own birth at the end. “Uterine wall collapsing,/so they cut my mother’s belly and drag me out/wailing to.” So you have this wailing and the music, part of the pain and the release and…
PSJ: And the connection… It is 1951 in Arkansas and I was two or three weeks early, a preemie, and my mother had already had two or three miscarriages. She was 32 and I was the first live birth.
BH: I guess we are all born of and through our time and place and this is your story.
PSJ: “Glad All Over” was written in the early 80’s. “Glad All Over” is a song by the Dave Clark Five. The sixties were so strange in this way, this exuberance of youth and what we could do as young people. This poem chronicles what happened in my hometown when the civil rights marches took place. Literally my neighbors were jailed and released. No one was killed, thank god. The Klan chased them. My family and other families just sat and waited. We were prepared and this is one of the reasons I have no problem with black folks owning guns. They should be legal, and they should be able to keep them in their homes.
I see my mother, who until that day could not say shit,
go up to one of the troopers and politely, quietly demand:
“Sir, see these children. Please lower your rifle.
PSJ:. She is the heroine in this story. All of this is true. I don’t write much about my family, but I thought that this was extremely important and I wrote it to honor that situation, and how hard it is to be from Arkansas. The black experience there is something that is rarely discussed. Some of the worst massacres and some of the worst lynchings all took place in the Delta where I grew up. Most of the state is white and very middle class. The Delta is where the cotton plantations were.
BH: The next poem is “New Blues.” I wanted to watch the movie that you mention, but I didn’t have time.
PSJ: It is one of the funniest movies. Very strange. “New Blues” is fun. One I wanted to celebrate Robert Cray because I have a big crush on him and he really does have this blues number where he wants his girlfriend to move out. I was working on my MFA at that time so there is all this stuff about avoiding reading critical theory and the academic critiques of the blues and the way people deal with it and the way in which American culture feeds on itself and how strange the recipe can be. What I really wanted to talk about was how the blues had changed. I also loved playing with the language in this poem. The last two stanzas I think are some of my best writing.
When the last train whistle rasps, and only the jet’s sonic boom
dazzles, will the drum kit slit the air and the saxophone
bends down so low
someone checks their back pockets as the guitar strips away
one more story; the one about the man and the woman
the one about standing at the bridge
the one told on the mocking bird’s tongue
in a voice that scrapes the geologic layers of modern times
as if it could reveal the origins of the race.
I love the sounds. I love what I do with the instrumentation and I love that it is a lot about disruption. And the consequences.
BH: And then in the end you pull the reader back into your room with your music and “the slithering line from ear to heart,/then back to the clock against the wall.” Most of the poems we have just discussed were written early. Can you talk about how you wrote them? What was your process? Did you do research?
PSJ: They were written between 1975 and 1990. I just typed them on the typewriter. Many of them went through many revisions. I wrote the Holiday chronicles when I was in my MFA program. I am a curious, educated person. For instance I did not look up the movie, Birth of the Blues for “New Blues.” I saw it on TV a thousand years ago. It is absolutely bizarre. From remembering it, I got the idea of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson taking a broom and using it as a bayonet. He must have had an extraordinary amount of anger about being put into these roles.
BH: Do you use any language experiments when you are writing?
PSJ: I’m a lyric poet for the most part. So the issue for me is what kind of ideas am I thinking about. How can I bring some emotional energy into a poem? How can I play with language in an interesting way so that when I write about something, it is both familiar and heightened at the same time? I use prompts, but mostly I pull out from experience and interests those things that my work explores.
BH: “The Village Sparkles” is a later poem and it has a completely different tone with a playful use of language.
PSJ: This was fun. I remember a German woman I met at Squaw Valley who wrote poems in English but was always capitalizing the nouns in her poems. Why are you doing that? I asked. That’s what they do in German, she said. I wrote this poem after I came back from a church service with Susan Wheeler. It was a beautiful day… It was one of these days when someone could have been singing, “It’s raining men.” There were all these guys on the street, and they all were all handsome, probably gay, but that didn’t matter. It was just beautiful and it was funny. I was just having so much fun with this poem. It is all about language but it is also about desire.
BH: Why Julia Roberts? “In America, who knows what is important/Julia Roberts or Vagina or Julia Roberts and Vagina”
PSJ: Because she was around that’s all. Her picture was everywhere. Why not? Also she has a huge mouth…
BH: Then there is another longer poem, “Saltimbanque”
PSJ: Let me talk about this one briefly. When I went to the Virginia Center for Creative Arts the first time, I had been working as the Director of Development at the New Museum. When Toni Cade Bambara died at the age of 56, this was astounding to me. When I saw the headlines, I woke up and said, “I have to quit my job.” It was the most prestigious, the best paying job I ever had or I ever will have. I called Marcia Tucker the next morning and said I have to resign. I have to work on my poems. Three months later, I left. In the meantime I got the residency at VCCA for the month of April. I got there and slept for three days. I was so worn out. When I woke up, I started reading things at random and there was this book by T.J. Clarke, The Absolute Bourgeois. That’s when I started thinking about the position of artists. Also 1848 is fascinating to me because it’s that year where there were revolutions and rebellions all throughout Europe and they were all put down and they were harbingers of things to come. And there were slave rebellions, many big ones in the U.S. and probably in South America although I don’t know that history. Also, there was a French speaking artist there so I talked with her and realized that Daumier was the perfect figure. He was popular and he was a famous artist, but he had this whole cache of paintings he couldn’t show because they would have just kicked his ass into jail. So this poem is about what it means to resist. What does it mean to restrain oneself? How do you figure out how to undermine power? What will the powerful do to you? The saltimbanques were the street performers, whole families with animals, monkeys, etc… and the French are such great bureaucrats. They outlawed working with animals and performing children. A significant number of them starved to death including the animals they worked with. All of this was done because they were street performers and their songs were not sanctioned by the state.
BH: You also have an image in this poem of the Saigon monk burning himself as a protest against the Vietnam War.
PSJ: I remember that picture. It was in yellow and all the other pictures were in black and white. Saffron robe. I literally can see through the black and white. I think most people could.
BH: Like Whitman you are moving across the world. Then Martin Luther King.
PSJ:. I wanted to place King in jail, to show his deep humanity in the face of oppression, but also to show how he like those performers was codified by the state. I mean Martin Luther King got his ass kicked too, in many horrible ways. But I also wanted the position of the clown, the saltimbanque, the performer to be revered— that it is one of powerful ways to resist. Why else does the state do so much to regulate “entertainment?” We have to put on another face so we can continue when we leave the jailhouse behind. I wanted to give him that.
Clown face turned towards jail-floor dust.
His tears roll away holly laughter. saltimbanque
in a moment of am zinging tenderness and pure rageUnder the paving stones, the beach.
BH: Why do you call this next poem “Failed Ghazal”
PSJ: I call it failed because it’s not a correct ghazal. They are couplets, but that’s it. It is an elegy for my friend Peter Dee. I like that it is about the generosity of friendship. I think one of the jobs of poets is to be able to keep the names alive.
BH: And you do that throughout the book. As I encountered people I didn’t know through your dedications and mentions, I would Google them and read whatever I could find. In a way you are keeping them alive.
PSJ: Thulani Davis said something to me many years ago— We sing people into the world and we sing them out of it. When horrible things happen, people don’t run to prose, they run to poetry because it has that ability to connect powerful emotions with ideas in one package. It can happen in prose, but when you really want to get down to it, it happens in poems.
BH: Patricia, at times your voice is almost prophetic, like Whitman or Césaire.
PSJ: I am the granddaughter of a Pentecostal minister. I want big. I don’t want little. Even my small poems, to me, are big.
BH: Some of your later poems in this collection are more riddle-like in their effect and with more humor.
PSJ: Yes, they are very, very different. I got sharper. You picked out a lot of narrative poems. There are many others. I do not think of myself as a narrative poet. The later poems are often meditative or lyric or some combination.
BH: I picked out the ones that seemed most compelling. Too bad we will only be able to include a few in the final interview. And also I wanted to sample poems throughout the book.
PSJ: The poems in The Weather That Kills and Femme du Monde are more narrative while the poems written since say 2004-2005 are tighter. I work with irony a lot more, I’m older and I don’t have to say as much to say what I want to say.
BH: Then there is a poem about the George Hunt painting, “Love Come and Go.” I looked at his paintings online, but I couldn’t find this particular one.
PSJ: You can’t find it because I own it. It’s hanging in my apartment. Mr. Hunt is a Memphis painter. This is a piece that is unusual for him. It has a portrait of Memphis Minnie on an OKEH record label with her gold tooth and the words, “Love come and go.” You will see it the next time you come to my house. I was thinking about my aunts in Memphis and store-bought dresses… I love “crepe de chine.” It’s a heavyweight fabric from the 40’s. You can read that as crepe de chine or crepe de Shine.
Sitting pretty and strumming the glory
Out of the gutbucket set of bulky string
And a girl’s memory of love come and gone.
I had a lot of fun with this. In the introduction to this book, Mary Baine Campbell comments on my practice as a sustained ekphrasis— that my work is in conversation with all kinds of art and I have been doing that from the very beginning.
BH: “Family Ties.” I remember when you lost your job and you were going through this financial insecurity. Often people hide these circumstances. What I appreciate about the poem is that it is straight-on honest and immediate, addressing the condition that many poets face.
PSJ: I was working for a big non-profit for about ten years. I knew something was coming down the pipe because the way the financial press was starting to talk about loans. This is a year before the crash. Then the next year all hell broke loose and I was in the first round of people laid off. People kept saying, “Oh you’ll find something else.” And I said, “I don’t think so. Given my age,and the fact that I had been looking even before the layoff, and having a difficult time getting people even to respond to my resume, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
It was horrible. Everybody I knew had someone who had lost work in their family or been cut back or didn’t get the raise they should have gotten. I’m very proud of the work I did in Living in the Love Economy because those poems also track not only me, but also my neighbors. I’m living on a street where I’m watching all kinds of folks really struggling to keep their homes and keep themselves.
BH: “The Fringe of Town” is another neighborhood poem, about a laundromat and the Bangladeshi manager and his relationships with a group of women in the laundromat, one who is ordering him around. As this is going on, you are reading about 7th century Chinese court women poets, one who is a princess with a Floating Wine Cup Pond.
PSJ: “The Fringe of Town” is ridiculously intellectual, for me. Here I am reading something thousands of years old, and I identify with the Pakistani guy because he’s working so hard… But all those women are workers too. They can’t do this to their husbands.
BH: You write:
He’s a foil
for their husbands, supervisors, bad news boyfriends, sons-in-law, sons
who roil their lives in small ways and large
There are layers of narrative going on here, the story of the pond, the story of the woman reading, and the story of the conflict between the Pakistani man and the woman. You bring them all together.
PSJ: We are talking about New Yorkers here. Anything that has anything to do with the natural world has a sort of complication and those ladies in the laundromat would not take to the Floating Wine Cup Pond, but there are these women from centuries past who went on the road as performers of these poems and other women went into convents. At this point of time, in China, women of letters had some kind of position in this world. My laundromat is my Zen experience. It allows me to merge different times, different ways that women operate in this world, and I am there as participant-observer. These little dramas take place and I am of it and not of it.
BH: Let me read the last few lines:
Not one of us will jump into the floating wine cup pond, but it is pleasing
to know that one existed centuries before at a town’s fringe.
Those centuries old breezes from China brush my neck
as we stand here folding clean underwear
& worrying about what to make for dinner.
PSJ: If you are a single woman in this city and you are doing this stuff and see all these people with their family stuff and these people have tons of clothing which is why they can yell at the Pakistani man. Also you have to figure out, “Where am I? I see them. Do they see me?
BH: In your poem “Back to School,” there is a community of people and your poems bring all this together. You are in the laundromat or here on the street with the children, mothers, fathers, and all. “A vibration hums this short street like blood pulsing through/ healthy veins: constant, predictable, mysterious.”
PSJ: The last poem in the book is “The Land of Fog and Poetry.” This is the first fully realized poem I wrote after my mother died. I went to the Cloisters for solace and came home with these scenes in my head. In an odd way I think of it as a companion to “Wearing My Chinese Red Silk Jacket.” I’m not sure why, but I do. I just watched that little girl walking away and her mother kept trying to get her to do things but she just wouldn’t.
BH: I think when you are in grief, you see things differently.
PSJ: You do. You can say it in a way that you may not when you are not grieving. At some point you don’t care if it is pretty or correct, you know on some very visceral level you know it is right. For some reason Bob Kaufman was the key to that. I always think of him as deeply rooted and utterly estranged at the same time. When you read his poems although everyone says they are so surreal, there are all these things in his poems that are just very clear and rooted in the real world and lived experience and then there is this stuff that is just wacko. I think that he understood.. and I think sometimes to be a poet is to be like that… to be very much connected to this planet, walking on this earth, but also being connected to the cosmos.
BH: And that’s what you mean by “cracked sage of/Fog and poetry.”
PSJ: Yes, that there is this wisdom but it is a wisdom that has been extracted from a great deal of pain, I think. A lot of us go through a great deal of pain before we can get to the point where we can write anything that is going to explore or amplify or deepen our humanity and our connection. So whether you are deeply invested in gender or race or anything. I mean all of this stuff is really important but at the end of the day, how does it make us wiser and bigger and more loving and caring and more careful than we are now. Because there is a hell of lot of carelessness in this world right now, there’s a hell of a lot of anger, a hell of a lot of ugliness and brutality and I am sick and tired of it.
BH: I agree. I love the way this poems comes back to the blues. “And the blues is always Bountiful.”
PSJ: Yes, that’s how it comes around to “Wearing my Red Silk Chinese Jacket” in the sense that the questions in that poem are in some ways being answered years hence in understanding that the blues is bountiful, that if we live long enough and care deeply enough, you will feel it, you will understand it and you will be grateful for it.
Barbara Henning is the author of three novels and seven collections of poetry, her most recent is A Day Like Today (Negative Capability Press 2015). Others include A Swift Passage (Quale Press), Cities and Memory (Chax Press) and a collection of object-sonnets, My Autobiography (United Artists). She is the editor of Looking Up Harryette Mullen and The Collected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins. Barbara lives in New York City and teaches forwriters.com and Long Island University in Brooklyn. More information about her work can be found at www.barbarahenning.com.
Patricia Spears Jones is poet, cultural critic, playwright and author of four major poetry collections including the recently launched A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems from White Pine Press. The Museum of Modern Art commissioned a poem for the Poetry Suite section of the catalog for One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence Migrations Series. Poems are anthologized in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (W.W. Norton); broken land: Poems of Brooklyn (NYU Press) and Best American Poetry: 2000 (Scribners) and the bilingual anthology, Mujeres a los remos/Women rowing: An Anthology of Contemporary US Women Poets (El Collegio de Puebla, Mexico) and elsewhere. Her poems are published inUpstreet, Cutthroat, and The Brooklyn Rail. She is guest editor of About Place Journal, editor and contributor to Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat featured online athttp://bombsite.powweb.com/?p=2944 and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women and is a contributing editor to Bomb Magazine where she has interviewed artists and poets. Her prose pieces and reviews can be found at www.tribes.org, www.homeslicemagazine.com, the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and in Bomb Magazine. She is the recipient of awards from The Foundation of Contemporary Art and The NY Community Trust (The Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award), the Goethe Institute and grants from the NEA and NYFA. She served as a Mentor in the first year of Emerge Surface Be, at The Poetry Project, and is a Senior Fellow at the Black Earth Institute, a progressive think tank. She has taught workshops at the Poetry Project, Poets House and in variety of academic and community settings. She is a lecturer at LaGuardia Community College.