In Conversation with Ash Bowen
Jeffrey Morgan is the author of Crying Shame (BlazeVOX [Books], 2011). More recently, poems have appeared, or will soon, in BOAAT, Copper Nickel, The Journal, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, Rattle, Verse Daily, and West Branch, among others. He blogs very occasionally at thinnimbus.tumblr.com. Below he discusses the approach he took to his first book, his current book project, and the “blur of sincerity” that appears in his poems.
AB: Crying Shame is a beautifully original book. I can honestly say that I’ve never read another book like it. Could you tell me a little about your development as a poet—who you were reading, etc., when you felt yourself becoming your own poet with your own voice, and the poems that make up the book began to take shape?
JM: What a wonderful thing to say. Thank you. I wrote the first poems in Crying Shame in graduate school at Penn State, though it took another six or seven years before the book really came together. I count Frank O'Hara, Alice Notley, Mark Levine, John Ashbery, Maxine Chernoff, Erica Hunt and many others as major influences on the style of writing in Crying Shame. I feel like my writing exists somewhere in-between "traditional" and "avant-garde" poetry aesthetics, and for some time that sort of bothered me. I guess when I stopped fighting against writing "in-between" is when I felt like my voice became my own. That being said, I feel like what I'm writing now is quite different from the poems in Crying Shame, but maybe that's just my perception.
AB: One thing that struck me about your book, Crying Shame, is that the book creates its own microcosm—a world that belongs only to the book. Is this a byproduct of your own, unconscious writing style, or was this something that you purposely intended to create?
JM: It wasn't conscious, at least not at first. One of the things about Crying Shame is that the letter poems that comprise the final third or so of the book depend upon the reader being comfortable with gaps in the narrative. You're only getting one side of a correspondence that seems to be the aftermath of a love affair gone wrong. To a certain extent, the poems play on eavesdropping--as if the reader has intercepted or found these letters. I wanted the first two thirds of the book, then, to create the tone and context for that. Since that tone and context is kind of "hyper real," after awhile I guess it became clear to me that the world of the book is its own thing. I'm cool with that.
AB: I can’t help but read the first poem in the book, “How Word is Passed,” as a Holocaust survivor’s existential crisis. Coupled with the next poem, “Nostalgia,” with its juxtaposition of violence and whimsy, and the other poems in the first section—with their interest in rescue/being rescued—I wonder if you are dealing with the surreal forms of deliberate violence we saw exacted onto Jewish people in the Holocaust. Is this something you had in mind or is this the by-product of my own reading?
JM: Yes, very much so. I wanted the book to begin with a specific personal context. "How Word is Passed" is about what happened to my family's name and then also about legacy more generally. There's the cliché of Jewish guilt passed down the generations, but that's really an American thing, I think. Or anyway, there's an American version of it. Everybody's dead, so how do I justify my existence in the new land of milk and honey? That first poem is a little heavy, so I think what follows works against it tonally. That's where some of the whimsy and surreal rescue fantasy you mention comes in.
AB: Violence seems to inundate us these days and violence informs many of your own poems. How do you view the violence in your poems?
JM: I think the book deals with how violence affects language, so it shows up right there on the surface of things. I'm very aware of it and consciously trying to explore that violence.
AB: Your speaker prefers to deal with painful topics in an indirect way. Ghosts—historical, personal, romantic—abound. Can you talk about this indirect approach? Is it a comment on modern pain being too unbearable to gaze on directly?
JM: That's an interesting and difficult question for me to answer. I guess I'm interested in the dislocation of emotion. I often feel disconnected from my emotional state in the sense that I can't really say why I lean a particular emotional way in a given moment (poetic or real). Since the poems take some time to write, it seems "natural" to me that there's a certain indirection to the gaze. Does that make sense? To answer your other question, I don't know what is with me and ghosts. I can seem to quit 'em.
AB: With fear of sounding like a fanboy, I’m completely in love with the last two sections of your book. I’m particularly impressed with how risky the sections are, with each poem titled, “Dear Crying Shame—.” Could you talk about your concerns for how that many poems with the same title might become a liability for your book?
JM: Thanks so much. Hmm, I guess in the context of the book I wasn't too concerned about the similar titles since they're meant to be letters in a correspondence. There were a lot more letter poems with that title that never worked out. It was mostly a problem ordering them. I'm not too interested in chronology, but with letters you're really pushing it if you don't think about them that way. That was hard for me, but I think it worked out.
AB: What are the first books you feel I should be reading?
JM: Obviously there are so many great first books, but I'll single out three. This year I loved Matt Rasmussen's Black Aperture. For anyone who hasn't read it, don't be a hoodlum--go buy a copy. When I was writing Crying Shame, Arielle Greenberg's Given was a book I really admired and tried to learn from. Carla (my wife) strongly recommends Allegiance by Francine J. Harris. It's on my to-read list.
AB: Your book has moments of sincerity, or at least smaller degrees of irony than the Modernists would’ve been comfortable with. Do you think that contemporary American poetry can ever reach that place where sincerity can be appreciated (and I mean sincerity in the way that we see so welcomed in Neruda’s poetry)?
JM: I like a blur of sincerity and irony to a certain extent. The always trenchant Stephen Burt has really interesting things to say about this tendency in contemporary poetry. I think it's honest to move back and forth between the two and to muddle them somewhat, but the out-and-out ironic too often masks weak ideas, and sentimentality is whitewash. I want true emotional intelligence (emphasis on intelligence). If poetry doesn't do that, then I'm not really interested. I make fun of one of Neruda's "sincere poems" in Crying Shame because it's sentimental and cute, but I love much of Neruda's more overtly political stuff in Canto general, etc.
AB: I’m always interested in the biographies of poets. When did you start writing poems in a serious way? Did you have someone who encouraged you? In your book, you thank your parents for encouraging you to do “impractical things.” Could you talk about this, as well as what it’s like to live with another writer?
JM: My father's a poet, John Morgan, with a bunch of books (his most recent is River of Light: A Conversation with Kabir, University of Alaska Press) and my mother, Nancy, is a violist, so really I grew up with a lot of poetry and music (I play the cello). I was lucky in the respect that I never had to have any conversations about practicality. I don't think I ever considered whether or not to write poems seriously (since they were always serious in my house growing up), but I guess I only decided to go to graduate school for writing my last year in college. My parents were perfectly happy that I decided to pursue the "ignoble arts."
Living with another writer (my wife, Carla Conforto, is a poet and essayist) is great in the sense that if she likes something I've written, then it's probably good. If she doesn't like something I've written, she usually has insightful things to say about what's not working and why. Honestly though, we both work and we've got a kid, so it's not like we're piddling around the house talking about existential ennui. We're mostly talking about what we want to cook for dinner and whether or not there's a sufficient amount of coffee in the house.
AB: Finally, I’d like to know about the project you’re currently working on. Do you think it’s different than Crying Shame?
JM: I'm working on a book of personae poems. I think it's very different from Crying Shame. Personae can be dodgy business, and I'm interested in what I can do and, in a sense, get away with using situation and voice. I'm also really interested in the limits of empathy.