Of course, first and foremost—we’re talking about trauma. You’ve mentioned this before, but I know we’ve talked a lot about trauma / the lyric & how the former facilitates this kind of restless interior mapping—a moving away from the form to get to the self, I guess. But I’m also thinking about the fact that the violence in your poems literally requires a body to exist—whether it’s enacted or just on the horizon. What do you think are the possibilities of the lyric in these moments? What can it offer to not only a reader, but the speaker / bodies on the page?
Hmm, I’m gonna ramble my way to answer here, I think. What’s beautiful about the lyric mode is the ability for juxtaposition, for layering, for going beneath the surface of the narrative (or conversely, extending into atmosphere and offering an aerial view—clearly my ideas of lyric seem related to spatial movement). Within our day, there are all kinds of things that feel like lyric moments to me. I’m thinking about daydreaming, interior dialogues, maybe something as ridiculous as looking at images of someplace I’ve never been on Google Earth. So, the lyric feels to me like stepping outside of time, paradoxically withdrawing into and simultaneously leaving the bodily self. When speaking of trauma, there are all kinds of reasons one might want to do that, whether it’s at the moment of the act or after, trying to process. It’s actually amazing how much we can unconsciously think in a split second, and I think the lyric allows us to stretch time enough to unpack those split-second moments that we might otherwise not.
Another thing your poems make me think about re: violence is how it is always an education—if there is an agent, then there was once a teacher. A student. I’m thinking now about Ross Gay & Bringing The Shovel Down & all the lineage that comes with a violent act. As someone who often places the speaker on both sides of the act, what (if anything) have you come to understand about violence & its catalysts?
Funny, I just reread Bringing the Shovel Down on the train to & from school yesterday. I love Ross & his work, both on the page & off. What have I’ve learned about violence and its catalysts? One thing maybe, is that even when we think we can identify a catalyst, that might not be it. What I mean is that cause and effect is not as clear cut as we want it to be. It's a narrative, which is to say it is constructed. So I’m wary of the easy connection, the obvious point. Now, I don’t mean it’s not helpful to try to locate why things happen: reflection of that sort is absolutely necessary to healing, to gaining self-awareness, and often, fixing problems starts with identifying one thing we can begin to work on. But I’m skeptical that I can always say with confidence, “X made Y happen.” Often, there’s a combination of factors at play. This means that when I think about growing up with two abusive stepfathers, I have to remember that it would be dishonest to simply paint them as two-dimensional, evil characters who came into my family just to do harm. The truth is that there are reasons for their actions: some psychological, some biological, some environmental, & some I will never know. The truth is that I had a stepfather who was physically & verbally abusive to my mother, my brothers, & me, who had affairs with women in our home, who sold our belongings for drugs. The truth is also that he cooked for us every day, that I used to love helping him wash his car while listening to “All Eyez On Me,” that he walked me home from school and taught me how to fight off stray dogs when I was alone. The truth is that my brother & I used to beat the hell out of each other often & called it playing. The truth is that I can’t imagine how my mother must have felt. Whatever I come up with in order to understand is my own narrative, but it’s not the only narrative. Does that make sense? Besides, it’s more sobering to think of the fact that no one is born into this world to do harm to others, and yet we do anyway (assuming all people are born without ill intent, which I do). But even with good intentions, I can still hurt someone, so how do I reckon with that? I’m not trying to humanize & empathize with people who hurt me in order to justify what they’ve done. I’m just better off accepting messiness from the start, because humanity is a mess. If people were inherently evil, it wouldn’t be heartbreaking when they fuck up.
If there’s one region I’ve learned the most about this year, it’s definitely the South & all the things it has to say. As a Louisville transplant, what is your particular (artistic) lineage when it comes to your home? What conversations / concerns / traditions do you believe you’re adding to?
First, I just want to say that it seems like Kentucky is the disowned child of the country. Other Southerners won’t claim us, Northerners won’t claim us, & I side-eye anyone calling it the Midwest. It’s the South, y’all, with all the contradictions that brings. You know, it’s possible that growing up in Louisville has something to do with gravitating toward the undefined, the uneasy, or maybe I’m overthinking it, lol. But since nobody wanna claim me, let me claim myself firstly. The confidence to do that comes from a gang of folk. I have to thank the Affrilachian Poets, particularly Mitchell L.H. Douglas, Ellen Hagan, & Kelly Norman Ellis, whom I took a workshop with when I was sixteen. They were the ones who introduced me to the broader poetry conversation. Their ideas of troubling the received stereotypes of Appalachians definitely had an influence on me, in terms of feeling like I could try to tell my stories even if they didn’t conform to what someone else’s idea of me would be, as a poor black Southern kid. As a writer, I guess I’m in conversation with anyone else who feels like they’re living in a place with a past that is painful to discuss, which is obviously not confined to any geographic region, though the South has its particular struggles with history. For me, family and history are intertwined in that way.
I hope my poems start conversations around family & what that word means. I hope my poems start conversations around failures & our struggle to grow beyond them, whether the failures of others or ourselves. Poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Vievee Francis, Philip Levine, Nikki Giovanni, Pat Rosal, Natasha Trethewey, Natalie Diaz, Cathy Linh Che, Jericho Brown...what they all have in common to me is an unflinching attitude toward the world, a commitment that seems less like obligation and more like a kind of respect. They understand the difficult, and welcome it. They also all teach me how to write about my life in a way that doesn’t privilege a gaze that would want to make spectacle of it. They’ve given me the permission to believe my stories can be nuanced and that yes, I have something to say.
JEREMY MICHAEL CLARK is from Louisville, Kentucky. His work has appeared in Callaloo, Forklift, Ohio, Horsethief, The Nashville Review, The Rumpus, & elsewhere. He has received support from Callaloo, Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival, Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, & Squaw Valley. Currently an MFA candidate at Rutgers University in Newark, he lives in New York.