Interview with Caleb Jordan

Why Poetry? 

The simple answer is that there is no other meaningful way for me to communicate. I used to write prose, but I have left that behind except for the necessary bits for school. Poetry was always a part of my family: my earliest memories were my father reading poetry to me and at family events we would recite poems. All of this has made poetry feel like the most natural thing, a pure way of communicating.

Who are you currently reading? 

I have been inundated with Film History for my upcoming exams but have had a little time for some poetry. I just bought the Complete Poems of Jim Harrison, which is just chock full of excellence. Over the summer I reread through several Susan Howe books, she is one of my favorites. I also reread, I do a lot of rereading, Iteration Nets by Karla Kelsey and sent her a nice email about how much that book means to me.

Would you tell us a bit about the larger collection these are a part of? 

I started writing twelve-line poems after reading through Speech! Speech! by Geoffrey Hill, which uses the same form, though in a different way than my work does. The book really took off after I had a very violent and horrific event happen to me and I had to ask myself: “Should I write about this?” and “If yes, then how do I write about it?” I would say that I am not a very confessional poet for the most part, but beneath everything these poems are very personal. I ended up with 144 12-line poems, which was my goal, as these kinds of slight numerological things interest me. The goal of the book is that it reads as both a mammoth epic poem and a series of twelve-line poems. Rhizomes and all that.

What poets / artists have had the most influence on your work? 

Oh, so many, I feel as if I am just a big conglomerate rather than a solid person, like Oogie Boogie or a man-colony of ants. People I always mention are Terrance Hayes, Geoffrey Hill, Susan Howe, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Czeslaw Milosz, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound. Also, the Misty Poets, such as Bei Dao and Duo Duo. A poet that has had a large influence over my work within the last couple of years has been Will Alexander, he is such an incredible poet and essayist, and even though my style is quite different his work always invigorates me. I feel like 3/4ths a reader and 1/4th a writer. 

Outside of poetry, the work of Kenzaburo Oe has always held sway over me since he found me in my early 20’s. Painters like Van Gogh and Vermeer are also important; filmmakers like Agnes Varda and Terrence Malick. I also must mention Adrian C. Louis, I cannot speak highly enough of his work!

What area do you feel your work has developed most over the course of your writing? 

I would say understanding my own style and voice. Everyone has a voice, it is a matter of training the literary vocal cords to be able to reach the right tone and pitch, to hit the notes, to strain and stretch when needed. I think, also, I have become more wary of commodification of that voice. I do not want to be enjoyed but to be fleetingly experienced, like an immunization, and sting a day or two later.

What modern poet do I have to read right now, today? 

I would include Will Alexander as a modern poet, he is still doing great work, though he is older. So much work that I think is incredibly vital is being done by Native poets like Sherwin Bitsui, Jake Skeets, and Layli Long Soldier (for example). Two of my favorite books of the last handful of years have been play dead by francine j. harris and Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen.

What role does music play for you while reading, writing and editing? 

Music plays a big part in all three of those processes for me, but I should say that I am not a musician. One of my great loves is rap music, my earliest musical memories is of a friend stealing his brother’s tape of Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die so that we could listen to it illicitly, and I especially love experimental rap music like the work of Aesop Rock and billy woods. Another big musical inspiration to me is noise music, black metal, extreme metal, anything that tests the listener to some extent; this plays directly into my poetics and provides a backdrop for a lot of the editing that I do. 

I cannot talk about myself and music without talking about Silver Jews frontman David Berman, poet and songwriter par excellence. Berman’s lyrics always are challenging and surprising, no matter how many times I approach them, and I return to his work over and over again for inspiration. One thing that I do to spur my own writing is to listen to great music or read great literature or watch great movies because the very existence of it, the fact that somebody could make something that I consider excellent and artful and challenging, makes me feel as if it is my duty to try and reach towards those heights in my own small way.

What role (if any) does the Defund the Police & BLM movement play in this work?

I think it plays a definite role in this particular work because of the prevalence of BLM and Defund the Police in the cultural zeitgeist of the last couple of years. Part of my own feelings for the police have grown out of personal experience: witnessing the blatant corruption of small-town police, having experienced direct harassment, having seen the destructive ethos that governs their every move with people that I love being in the crosshairs. Also, the police are a symbol for the hyper-aggressive and hyper-destructive defensiveness that I see as the core tenet of the historical white Christian American being. When I attack the police in my work, it is because I understand them, but I have no patience, nor sympathy, nor mercy towards their continued existence as an institution. This also reflects on the other institutions that the police could stand in for and the general cowardice of the American people writ large upon so much of our social interactions. 

 How does publication affect our writing? 

For the writing of my work, very little. I do not think about publication or audience when writing really at all. However, publication affects our writing in its existence as an artifact. Once published, the poem becomes something it was not before, and it becomes aware of itself in a way that was impossible without the intervention of an audience. The last thing that concerns me about my own poetry, and other people’s too, is the meaning of it, but for most of the audience it is safe to say that the meaning is the thing itself. Publication changes the life of the poem from something hermetic to something, if not wide open, at least partially open to the public on weekends. In their song “Seasons (Waiting On You)”, Future Islands has a lyric that is true for both poems and people: “You know when people change/they gain a piece but they lose one too.”

Commodification. . . is there a lot of that “motif” in your work? Is this a familiar theme for you?

As you note, it is at the end of the last poem very blatantly with the suicide notes. I think about this theme a lot, it always crosses my mind when I send things out to journals. Part of the reason why I think about it so much is because some level of commodification is inevitable in this capitalist world we inhabit. What I try to do in my work is to call attention to commodification that happens on a daily basis to us and to call for resistance to the broader reaches of it. There is also hypocrisy built into this equation though, and I think part of my work is coming to grips with the unfair and hypocritical nature of what it means to be an American in 2022. It is not to say we should feel guilty, but that we should be aware, and so when the motif creeps into my work it is with this desire, though often times unconscious. Honestly, my preference would be for myself to create my work, to get praise for it, and then after I die for my name to fall into the depths of history and only the work remain.