Joey De Jesus interviews D. A. Powell


Joey De Jesus: This is KIN poetry magazine, a magazine for international poetry in English. I'm Joey de Jesus. I had the pleasure of sitting with D. A. Powell in September during one of his trips to New York City to talk about his newest book, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys. I first encountered Powell's work in college, and was immediately and particularly moved by "No Picnic," the leading poem in his book Chronic. D. A. Powell is the author of five fantastic books of poetry: Tea, Lunch, Cocktails, Chronic, and most recently Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, which is out by Graywolf Press. He has received a Kingsley Tuffs Award, a Pushcart Prize, a California Book Award. He's been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and has received numerous other prizes [Powell has, since this interview, gone on to win the NBCC]. He has taught at Columbia University, University of Iowa, Harvard University, and currently teaches at the University of San Francisco.

The following segments are parts of our conversation:

D. A. Powell: So what do you want me to read?

JDJ: "Tender Mercies".

DAP: "Tender Mercies"? I read that tonight.

JDJ: You did?

DAP: Yeah, so I have that one marked. [Reads poem]

JDJ: That's beautiful.

DAP: Thank you.

JDJ: The very last line--I'm just curious about how that line emerged in particular.

DAP: Well, I think because as I was writing the poem, I was thinking of this as the presentation of the palette of the book, and that I was going to, in the poem, lay out a kind of seed-catalogue of the valley, and that that would have about it certain colors that would recur. Pea flowers, for example, are blue; and there are a number of elements in the poem that are blue. But also I was thinking of the poem as being an acknowledgement of the presence of the artist painting the landscape: "The smack the rain plants as it smudges past and penetrates the canvas" and that's the first awareness that we're present in the landscape as artists because we have to acknowledge somewhere in our art that whatever our subject is we're also exploiting it in the same way that people are exploiting land. Maybe not exploiting it in a bad way, but exploiting it nonetheless.

So once I had the idea of putting the canvas visible in the mainframe of the poem, then it gave me permission to sort of jump back and forth between a voice that was present in the landscape describing the judge's house, the chicken farm--you know, the catalogue of the landscape--along with the voice that comes in and says "before all of this disappeared, I just wanted to be content with all of its surfaces, with those tools, that palette of colors." Weed, barb, crack, rill, rise, voluptuous in some age hence because we captured it as art, because we actually were present as artists.

The reason that human beings have any concept of history isn't because somebody wrote a history book, it's because somebody made a painting that showed you what George Washington looked like; it's because somebody made a painting that showed you what the French Revolution looked like. That's where we exist as spectators, so I wanted to pull back and include this comment on the making of the scene, and that was when I realized I had permission to no longer write that kind of elegiac poem. While you're here in this zone, in this life, making art, you acknowledge the ephemerality of it and then you say, "I can't keep doing that forever."

JDJ: In a previous interview you said you were experimenting with new forms in your poetry using traditional punctuation and capitalization, and I know this is something that you weren't really doing--

DAP: Before this collection?

JDJ: Yes.

DAP: Oh, yeah! Making regular capitalization and regular punctuation. Yeah, well, in part it's because I made a semi-conscious decision to switch over to writing in sentences. It was sort of laziness at first. I was working on a draft of a poem and I was like, this is getting kind of sentence-y, and then I though, I wonder how sentence-y I can let it stay and still have it feel like it's got a sizable amount of rhythmic energy. And then once I saw that I could do that, I began to be a little bit looser in writing more sentences, and I thought, you know, well, later one realizes these things, it's not what I thought right at the moment--but little by little I realized I'd been afraid of writing in sentences. Because I don't like endings. I have a rather abrupt way of ending poems in part because I don't want to end softly and discreetly and all of that stuff.

So with sentences you constantly have to worry about where does it end, where does it end, where does it end, whereas poems… You know, previously, with my first three collections, one of the reasons why I wasn't really interested in titles for the poems and I used the first lines was because I didn't see the poems as discrete units. I saw them as part of a larger organic body. When I started writing Chronic, then I began to feel like I was at the end of that prosodic style, but I couldn't quite tell where I needed to get to next. It was like Plath in the churchyard with her house hidden by the headstones and she says, "I simply cannot see where there is to get to." I was in that book really feeling like there was no place to go. And Useless Landscape sort of opened up a whole other realm of inhabitation because I was liberally inhabiting the sentence and trying to make it feel like something didn't just include this finality, this dead thing that we call a period at the end. "Triumph over death with me and we'll divide the air."… "And we'll divide the air." The vocal apparatus of anyone who's reading that poem has to open up and let the air escape and it's this very wonderful, ecstatic, physical, sexual release, and it doesn't just end. You can feel it sort of lingering in your body, so I felt comfortable being able to put a period at the ends of things. And then I really got to explore the tension between sentence and line, which I hadn’t allowed myself to do a whole lot. My lines by and large have always been really discrete units. Now I’m playing with enjambment and seeing how far I can take that without losing the tonic autonomy of the line.

JDJ: Is that why you think you dabbled with formal verse where you changed the end word?

DAP: Oh, yeah. Because I would never allow myself to write a sestina or a villanelle because I know that they're all terrible. Because it's just a stupid, stupid formal constriction that makes things far too tight. So I thought, well, how can I use those forms and push them as far as I can push them and still have them remain recognizable. So there’s a villanelle (oh my God, I hate villanelles) but I allowed myself to change all of the lines that repeated. I mean, they're still recognizably there, but only if you look for them. "You are the sovereign who rides me. I am the ass. We had made contact just beyond this sphere. From among the planets a tiny bit of space junk fell. What would a cosmoplast look like if it were us? Struck by its own discarded stages which didn't burn up on impact. That's why we need a more formal class, in matter. That's why physics and that's why God allowed us to make junk. He himself made junk of the void and called them planets. A tiny bit of space in space. Alert the media that things are going to have to change. For one thing, there'll be no trip up the Ayeyarwady. What would Jesus or Roger do? Take it up the Aswan Cataract as a suitable alternative. If love may be fallen into, so might the meteor crater. So might gravity suck us toward the great black hole in our own unheavenly crown. O infernal orbits. Even they will not keep us falling." So, let's see. "You are the sovereign and I am the ass" becomes on impact "That's why we need a more formal class," which then becomes, "What would Jesus or Roger do? Take it up the Aswan," which then becomes "toward the great black hole in our own unheavenly crown." See what I did there?

There's another poem in here that is in a strange sort of syllabics: "Riverfront Park, Marysville, CA," which is 13, 7, 13, 7, 13, 7, 13, 7, 13, 7, 13, 7, 13, 7, 13, 7, and then there's the rhyme scheme, too. But it isn't like I sat down and decided, oh I'm going to write with a 13, 7. I wrote the first line and it was 13 and the next line was 7 syllables and normally I'm not counting syllables, but I was like, there's some kind of symmetry there that's working and I can't quite figure out what it is. But if it were 14, 7, again, that would feel really obvious, so I didn't want it to draw attention to itself too much. I'm a Where's Waldo kind of poet. I like hiding things in plain sight. I've done that. In all the books, there are things that no one sees.

JDJ:The C's.

DAP: Yeah, the C's. People sort of figured that out. In Cocktails, you know that song by Nina Simone, "Four Women?"

JDJ: How does it go?

DAP: (sings) "My skin is brown, my manner is rough," you know, and at the end of each verse, she says, you know, the name of someone: "My name is Aunt Sarah. Aunt Sarah." And then the very last one is: "My name is Peaches!" So all four of those women are buried somewhere in "Cocktails:" Aunt Sarah, Safronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches, but no one would ever know that. Well, now you know.

It's like in Amarcord, Fellini wants the ocean to look magical. There's no way to make the ocean look magical in the real world. It is gray, right? But what he did was, he shot that scene on a sound stage and he made the ocean waves out of saran wrap. The camera sits far enough away that you can't tell it's saran wrap. It looks like a twinkling, perfect sea. So that's my job as a poet. It's to not show my saran wrap. Make people believe the artifice. Make people believe that it's reality. Yeah.

Part of, I think, the reason why the landscape is eroticized for me is because if it's erotic, people will care for it. They will love it. They will desire it. And hopefully preserve it. If I were to make it look just the way it really looks in life, I think people would say, well, so much the better if we just plough all that under. They don't realize that, you know, in the drainage ditches, in the margins, there are real lives there. There's some beauty and drama. And to just, you know, sort of put a freeway through it and say, well, it's all the same, it's ugly. So I’m trying to make everything beautiful including the freeway, which is really hard. "Clover Leaf" is the best I could come up with and I guess it’s the best that the freeway people could come up with, too.

JDJ: What do you think are the functions of The Field Guide and how did that translate into your work? And I ask this because the first half of the book to me seems to be a sort of expression of bewilderment at times, a lostness in these landscapes. And in the second half of the book though I still had that feeling, just to be framed in the context of a field guide, which to me sort of is the opposite, you know, it’s this way of identifying what it is that bewilders. I wondered about the tension between that.


DAP: Well, I think I'm being very sort of wry when I call it A Field Guide for Boys because I don’t think that I mean it in the sense of: here is a guide to the flora and fauna of the world for young men to chart their way through life. I feel like it’s more like a user’s guide for boys, like: here’s what boys are like. If I could describe it in terms of scale, I think of the Useless Landscape lens of the book as being very wide, very distant, and A Field Guide for Boys as being much more close in and observational and experiential, but I also like the way that the two terms have to wrestle with each other. I feel like part of the intent of this book as with all of my writing is to say, you know, I have lived at the margins of society and I want to speak from them. Not always. I don’t want to always feel like the outsider, like the exile, but I want to remind people that there’s a lot of folks in the world that do feel that way. And I had to be really careful about how I would engage otherness, to say, alright, I am speaking from a place of otherness, but then there are other kinds of otherness that I can’t speak for, but that I can indicate are there. Like the short poem, “A Brief History of Internment.” I would never be able to write a poem about the experience of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated but that doesn’t mean that I can’t acknowledge that it’s part of the landscape.


JDJ: I was thinking about moments, like the moment in a poem where there’s an imperative for the speaker to just make a statement, those signposting moments, in a way, and I thought of those moments as sort of being similar to that idea of identification, that impulse to identify came through to me in those moments.


DAP: Yeah. Well, I think many of the poems that I admire, not all of them, in fact, not most of them, but there are enough examples of people who sort of turn toward the camera, as it were, and break the fourth wall in their poems. I think of a poet like Hart Crane, for example, who will step into the poem and say, "The bottom of the sea is cruel.” And like, wow, weren’t you trying to avoid saying that? It’s amazing that suddenly when you’re going into a spin, you decide to turn into the spin and make it work for you. Like, okay, I’m just going to say really directly or something. And you know, Plath in “The Moon and the Yew Tree” is the example I was talking about where she says, “I simply cannot see where there is to get to.” Or she has another poem, I think it’s called “Departures” where she’s describing how green and luscious the landscape is: the fig trees are green, you know, everything’s green. And then she says, “The money’s run out.” And you just realize, wow, you know? That is the perfect example of the person who’s trying to distract themselves and keep themselves from saying the really desperate thing and then it’s like, “Girl, I just gotta tell you…he was murdered!”


Yeah, like you know that moment in Ghost where Whoopi Goldberg goes, “You can't tell her that way.” Sometimes you got to. But you try to save that. It’s a little bit like saffron. If you put too much in, it just throws everything off, but a little bit? That’s intriguing. You know. People are just eaten' up that dish of paella and saying, “What is that spice? What is that? I can’t quite locate what that flavor is.” Good.


JDJ: In an older interview, you said that while the book was coming together…


DAP: Which book?


JDJ: Useless Landscape. You said that: “some poems are landscape poems set in the Central Valley of California. This portion of the new work is tentatively titled Useless Landscapes. The others are poems in response to a relationship I was in with a combination sociopath and narcissist. They're not about him, but about other people, well, mostly."

Maybe I'm assuming too much, but when did that sort of change for the latter half of the book if it did?


DAP: Oh, well, it was even before the latter half, I mean, as I was working on the book, there were a few initial poems, some of which just got, you know, thrown out and some of which I just changed. But, yeah, there were a few, shall we call them, angry poems. So there’s a poem in the book called "Narcissus" and originally it was called “Narcissus in St. Louis” and I just thought, you know, it doesn’t actually help the book that it’s in St. Louis because then it feels like it’s some other location and I can just get rid of the St. Louis part and then it would be the Central Valley. And then I realized, well, actually the poem is more about me than it is about anyone else. Because let’s face it, we all have that narcissistic tendency. If we didn't, we wouldn’t be writing poems and trying to show 'em to people. So that felt like a little bit of letting go. And hopefully, I mean, I don’t think that there’s a tone of anger in that poem.


JDJ: No, I didn’t. That’s why I asked when that sort of changed.


DAP: Yeah. It was early on. And part of it was, I think, writing the poem “Narcissus in St. Louis,” was that I thought, how do feed a narcissist? You write about him. That was when I decided I wasn’t going to write about him. So, yeah. But I think that interview was probably still early on. Oh well! What is it God says to Jonah? “Does you good to be angry?”

Once in a while, you’ve gotta let it out. I mean, you don’t wanna read poetry that has no stake in life. And part of the stake that we have in life is our emotional selves and that’s going to come through somehow, you know? I think there are a lot of people who feel like, oh, I shouldn’t write about anything that I think personally, and I think, well, then you must not think very highly of yourself as a thinker.

JDJ: I wanted to talk about how little I thought, in comparison to your older works, just the frequency of pop cultural references.

DAP: Oh, yeah I know. I kind of miss that. I kind of miss it as a reader. Why is there not more pop culture in here? I mean, there's a few--the Playdough Fun Factory, "Do the Hustle," Jaws--there are references, but I think in part it's because I think that my sense of pop culture is not necessarily going to translate into a younger reader. I tried to limit myself--and again, this isn't a conscious choice, it sort of happened--that I have started feeling more like, well, maybe pop culture isn't necessarily the way to go in terms of thinking about sources for material. There's still some. Many of the titles are stolen from pop culture. "Useless Landscape" is a song by Antônio Carlos Jobim.

JDJ: I know, I sent you that video!

DAP: I know, I know. That was wonderful. I didn't know that you knew where I had stolen that from. It's surprising how many of these [titles] are original. "Head out on the highway" is from "Born to Be Wild". Except in my version it's head out on the highway.

JDJ: (Laughs) The references provided such opportunities for your wit. Did it ever feel like a buffer, a sort of buffer for the heavier subject matter?

DAP: Oh, definitely. And I feel like I'm still doing that, it's just that I don't need the laughs to be as loud. Like, in Tea, when I wrote a poem that was a parody of "Girl from Ipanema", that really felt like it needed a silliness to balance the subject of elegizing a drag queen who had died of AIDS.

My sense of time here is larger because I'm looking more at geological time. You know, the space of one human life, one interval. And that's why in "Tender Buttons", I mean "Tender Mercies"--whoops!--I sort of pulled back and go into "I was a maiden…"--the Persephone persona. It's like, where did she come from? She had been here all along. She's always there, I was just too busy using other girls.

I had an order when I was working on [Useless Landscapes] and then I completely redid it because I didn't want to sound like it was in order.

JDJ: What did it look like?

DAP: I don't know. I have the original around somewhere. But it was very different. And then I just took it apart and I laid all the poems on the floor and I picked them up in the order that they should go in, and then I had my assistant move all the pages around. I didn't do it myself because I thought, if I do it than I'm going to regret the choice. I wanted to have two different versions to look at. So I looked at the old, I looked at the new, I looked at the old, I looked at the new… And I finally figured the old was too orderly, because I was putting the poems in order as I was writing them. I'd be like, oh, this poem belongs after this one, and sort of insert into the document in the place. And then it all felt so forced, uninteresting.

And so in this poem, I say, in the turn, "I have never written a true poem in space." And part of that is to acknowledge that poetry is being written after us. Not by us. Someone else is going to figure out how to write it really well. We're sort of laying the ground. The ground's always being laid, nothing around us. The poem is about, it's about reading the work of a student and saying, "you arrive, unfasten your notebook and recite. I am only a schoolboy with a schoolboy's heart on it. You are the headmaster, now you must master…" The student has to kill the Buddha. The student has to be more interesting than the teacher, because otherwise nothing moves forward; the teacher doesn't move forward. You want your students to be writing at such a pace they force you to be a better writer. It's like, oh, I better go back and write.

Gwendolyn Brooks had that relationship with her students. You know, when she was teaching in Chicago and she had Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez and Carolyn Rodgers and Nikki Giovanni as students. And they were like, Ms. Brooks, why do you write such old-fashioned poems? And she was like, okay, I'm going to change with the times. And then she wrote her great poems: "Riot," "Sermon on the Warpland," "Chicago Picasso." Louis Glück, too, she says she's not growing as a writer unless she is actively engaged with young people's minds, and their sense of poetry. Because they're the ones that show us the way. And every once in a while, when you have a student that is writing from such an authentic place, you think, I've just been a dabbler all these years. Also, not just students in the sense of people that are actually studying with you, but also just younger poets in general. Amy Lowell, said, what did she say? "Writing poetry is a young man's job." And, I think that when you're young, the fire, the passion is much more, much more earnest, much more irresistible. As you get older, you constantly have to find a way to rekindle that fire. That'll happen for a while and then it goes out again.

The poems you admire, the poets you admire, the reason they're exerting influence on you is because there's part of you that hates the fact that their poem is so good. It's kind of like, I'm going to steal that to make it my own. Add there are some amazing examples. Look at Elizabeth Bishop and how much she borrows from Marianne Moore.

JDJ: Will you read one more poem? The last poem?

DAP: [Reads poem.]

Joey De Jesus' poetry has appeared in various journals online and in print. He lives in New York City.

D. A. Powell is the author of five books of poetry including Tea, Lunch, Cocktails, Chronic, and his most recent, Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys, which has been nominated for a National Book Critics Award. He has taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, the University of Iowa, Sonoma State University, San Francisco State University, and currently teaches at the University of San Francisco.

Joey De Jesus speaks with D. A. Powell about the latter's newest collection, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, as well as the power of sentences, the poet's (sometimes secret) allusions to pop culture, and what's wrong with villanelles. It is no surprise that Powell's comments are as witty and poignant as his poems.

Part of, I think, the reason why the landscape is eroticized for me is because if it's erotic, people will care for it. They will love it. They will desire it. And hopefully preserve it. If I were to make it look just the way it really looks in life, I think people would say, well, so much the better if we just plough all that under. They don't realize that, you know, in the drainage ditches, in the margins, there are real lives there. There's some beauty and drama. And to just, you know, sort of put a freeway through it and say, well, it's all the same, it's ugly. So I’m trying to make everything beautiful including the freeway, which is really hard. "Clover Leaf" is the best I could come up with and I guess it’s the best that the freeway people could come up with, too.