Jack Christian - Family is deep structure and invention—it is its own school of painting—and Christian is the ace reporter of its rituals and paradoxes. You dissolve into the world of relation as it dissolves in you like a powder. These poems read like the solution to a problem so old it could only be written in the future, which is now


FamilySystemFrontCover

Jack Christian, Family System,  Center for Literary Publishing, 2012.


Winner of the 2012 Colorado Prize for Poetry, selected by Elizabeth Willis
“Jack Christian’s marvelous first collection is as smart and filled with raw wonder as if it were capturing our genetic text from outer space and revealing that what it really looks like is your hand, up close. Family is deep structure and invention—it is its own school of painting—and Christian is the ace reporter of its rituals and paradoxes. You dissolve into the world of relation as it dissolves in you like a powder. These poems read like the solution to a problem so old it could only be written in the future, which is now. ” —ELIZABETH WILLIS, final judge

“Family System is one of the most specific and clarifying books of poetry I’ve ever read. It is filled with choices—made, to be made, not made—handled with a poetic understanding that what seems arbitrary will be inevitable when said with the right words while singing the right songs. This is a stand-out first book, introducing a first-rate original talent, doing powerful work, making quintessentially lyrical choices. Don’t miss this book.” —DARA WIER

“It seems that Jack Christian’s brain is able to produce tiny lucid creatures, have them run and sprinkle over a map of an unknown world with joy, speed, and delight. Even stranger, he’s somehow the spiritual offspring of very different ancestors: Pascal’s Esprit géométrique and Scandinavian mythology. ‘I was eulogizing a squirrel in a shoebox.’ Brilliant.” —TOMAŽ ŠALAMUN


1. On the inside of most of my books, I often write down the date and place I acquired the book or where I was when I started reading it or who gave it to me or what state of mind I was in at the time. Some kind of carving goes into the tree. Maybe it’s indulgent, this insisting on making my DNA / my curry stains present and part of. It makes me think of K holding the door open for me and saying, “I’m not sure nostalgia is as bad as we think it is.” This book, Jack Christian’s Family System, has two pieces of handwriting in it. It says, on the very first possible page, “Boston, MA, 2013. Given to you. You were drunk.” On the next page is Jack’s signature.
2. A text message received while I was at a goodbye party: “Everything becomes important so quickly. Being around my parents has made me feel so young again.”
3. While I was in the basement of the Cantab Lounge in Boston, I fluctuated myself to younger and in the middle of a few years ago. I was in Asia reading this line from Christian’s poem, “Northampton Ectastic,” for the first time somehow (?) on Gregory Lawless’ blog in an apartment that leaked karaoke at me from all directions late at night. “The chickens I’m to meet in weather unapproachable.” I read this line and crawled out the window with some some raisins shoved in my mouth. I handed my body dumb to the nearest Kimchi pot about to go underground.
4. “My agitated arms grow knotted.
The term to describe this is inextricable.
-New Revised Standard
The third years in my MFA program recently finished their thesis defenses / presentations. A lot of them wrote about their families. Inevitably, not all of it was / is happy. At every defense, there was some innocuous chatter about whether or not family had attended, whether or not we would have asked our family to come if the thesis being presented was our thesis, if we (the first and second years) were going to invite our family to our defenses. What we would say and what we wouldn’t.
5. “We’re in a giant mom and and dad linked by a heart.
We’re going round in circles in the figure eight”
-Family System
We are galaxy on galaxy on galaxy. (“You think they resemble a galaxy spinning, / but to them you think it’s like being inside two plants / joined at the stalk.”-FS)  The last minute of Men in Black is RIGHT.  The disorientation of this intimacy of blood. Do we ever know if we are further away or getting closer?
Is it clear to us how we are RELATED to our families exactly? Or is it always changing? My friend, A, sees a picture of my mother and says I look just like her. I reply, “Really?” in a voice that people often mistake for my mother’s on the phone.
“This is the myth of retrospective cohesion.”
-Eight Monks in Unison.
6. “None were flyover people,
nor were they reincarnations, nor stories with beginnings, muddles
and James, who was strangely present, Emma or not,
accepted in that time and place. Vanessa.”
(Marie)
When I turned the book over to see who blurbed, I saw Tomaz Salamun and nodded. I’ve been reading On the Tracks of Wild Game (a wine, a whirlwind) on and off and again and again for maybe six months. I can’t really bear to bring it back to library. Brandon Shimoda wrote a stunning piece at the Volta about Salamun’s blazing use of names in his books. According to Shimoda, Salamun and Christian (according to me) are doing an interesting thing in that they are showing us the systems (the picture of the subdivision from way high up on the front of Family System) surrounding and filling out not just the person, but the “citizen” living a “free country life.”
7. I initially balked at these terms Shimoda chooses to use to talk about Salamun / a poet documenting LIFE. They make me see uniforms a little too tight. They make me feel a little lifeless (life less). However, they’re the right ones (terms from a different way high up / aerial perspective), not only because their part of our first-world reality here in America (and the forgetting we like to do re: what our country is and does to other countries), but because of the way that allows the naming of names to come alive, to rupture us towards richness in spite of the system, which both depletes those names and makes those names possibly networked. There are people here being things / being beings to each other. These are people going beyond the requirements, which breaks the system. It is breaking the system is continually having / failing to adapt to.
8. A Public is a vehicle by which we are transported.”
-A Cataract
9. Here’s Shimoda:
“One characteristic of Tomaž’s work I find fascinating is the constant naming of people—family members, friends, lovers, acquaintances, heroes, poets, artists, politicians, villains—that seems partly not able to be helped: a both conscious and unconscious uttering of names emerging from a true exuberance for being in relation to PEOPLE. Tomaž intones the names of those who populate his poems’ and books’ unfolding free country-life; his intoning, to my ears, anoints the people as both beloved and legend, and within it I begin to hear a nation, or maybe, the dissolution of all nations in the citizens of a free country-life. But they are more than either situational or ecstatic intonations (as if that alone was deficient); they are recollections of the EARTH and the startled, shimmering CLOCK FACES passing upon it…Tomaž makes people PHENOMENAL.”
10. Christian allows the the I of the book to give us a stream of people, mothers and friends and farmers and writers and cousins and peopleIhavenoideawhotheyare hovering in the planet Virginia, that glow PHENOMENAL on the elastic floors of the poems. Where Christian deviates from Salamun lies within the urgency of the tone deployed by the narrating voice. Salamun’s I, in On the Tracks of Wild Game, gives us a dizzy hula hooping afflicted with hives. The voice of Christian’s I exudes a tone that is steadier and absorbent, though perhaps no more or less reliable. “The city came by for the trash. / I found a science of imaginary solutions, which was a good thing” (Responsibility). It is not a voice indifferent to being caught in an orbit of people and place with a poetic tongue, but it accepts or replicates the rhythms and paces of the persistent oscillation orbits have as a way of engaging with observation that pulls the I closer, than backs it away. The steadiness allows the illogical to leak in, to rub, but not roughly. It becomes part of the system, how it perpetuates, but re-forms it into a system that can be unpredictable.
11. It’s raining, but Matt says, that isn’t rain.
You make tea with it
or it gets to you. It’s an antelope.”
-Roseland
12. “He is our uncle, who grew tall,
and has stood for the decade since he gave up the church
and became the hoop at the end of the driveway.”
-Poem of My Hope
13. Typing out the word PHENOMENAL makes me look up the definition of ‘Phenomenology.’ Phenomenology, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (LOVE YOU INTERNET) is “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.”
14. Family System is aware that it is attempting to process its own processes of being aware, the systems of sensory organization it brushes against, while creating meaning or recognizing the meaningful. It is interested in how many awarenesses (spatial awareness, temporal awareness, linguistic awareness, self-awareness, etc.) are at play here, how they affect the I’s experience of phenomena (the names, the objects, the events).
15. Nets cast because they exist
and we are where we walk, strong as cans,
extolled by night. I paint a boat to display the night
and to take us to it. This piece is ours;
is no scheme of cognizance.”
-I Am Yours
Of course the writing and the book are absolutely a scheme of cognizance because the choice to poetry has been made and the sentences pour out and attend to the phenomena as such. Of course it isn’t….because poetry. At its best, poetry feels nothing like a scheme and everything like a scheme and also like a loving reveal coming out a beach towel that still smells like an ocean you don’t live near.
16. “Hell Is Fire Heaven Is Cake” is a poem I hope you take outside with you. Walk around and read it out loud while the streetlight quits against a tree that finally has leaves on it.
“I could hear the echoes of smitten children.
I could hear their birdsong imitation.
I was wrapped in a fraying blanket.
I was holstering a bad revolver.”
17. As soon as I finished reading this poem outside on the stairs, I began reciting to myself a part of “The Singing Knives” by Frank Stanford that is my favorite part.
“I saw the red moon too
I wished I was running a trot line
I wished I was in a fight
I wished I was fanning myself in church
But there was a heart on the fan
With a switchblade through it”
18. I remember exactly where I was when I first read that poem, too. I was the train, receding.
19. There is a sweat here in both these poems that is a rhythm that is body tensed and flexed and maybe in fear and maybe about to contain how a place works on us. (Again, it wonders how we might be related to it, how it relates to us.) Our blood in every hill.
20. “Virginians remember Virginia was a threshold of a giant realm
was a table.
Around it, friends smiled, got weird, got married.
Friends held bouquets. They brought their hogs and donkeys.
Some built houses. Some dressed in period garb.
Some shot each other.”
-A Hill
21. “The farm cat stalls, approaching”
-Mourning Picture
22. “Christian is an ace reporter of [family’s] rituals and paradoxes,” says Elizabeth Willis, again, on the back of the book. I think of this particular quote at the airport. I am about to get on a plane. I called people who do not live here with me in Minneapolis because I still felt compelled to say goodbye. I promise to call them again when I arrive safely.
23. “Given the apartment theory of dimensions
we could say, “Fuck it,” or we could gather the proof
necessary to believe in everything no one can see.”
-Let’s Collaborate
24. “And those by circumlocution then.
Or, gathered otherwise. Can you draw it. Can he drive it.
Was it seen like our own hand. And how was the ceremony.”
-Gothic Peoples Institute
25. A list of many of the circles/circulatory/measured spaces/mechanized spaces present in Family System: “constellation,” “a smaller arch passed under a bigger one,” “I who trace a line then stands on every point of it at once,” “Where there’s a hoop and hadn’t been,” “a crank is spitting gold bits,” “In their Willie Nelson 1970s holding pattern,” “mud puddle,” “a nest of cub-ghosts,” “graffiti, and in circles around us,” “you made a map from a barbed wire,” “my great-grandfather was all short-circuited,” “chant,” “concatenation,” “In the circle, I made the dog move,” “The circle drawn of necessity,” “we hope it does make an appearance as a trail to you,” “he visits planetariums,” “the distance between stadiums,” “I arranged my bones in a pleasing figure,” “In the yard a tarn is growing,” “the patterns of branches,” “it’s a satellite,” “I could name all the peaks from the helpful diagram,” “the fuzz has filleted the equilibrium in our eyes,” “we loom in rain,” “And often on the perimeter of thought on a knotted street,” “Where to go round again,” “Were they a bird’s nest.”  - Carrie Lorrig

The first few poems in Family System did nothing for me, I read them but highlighted no lines, paused over no words. That finally changed when I read "A Tree." I didn't like the poem completely -- I didn't understand the meaning or what it was trying to describe to the reader, but there were a few lines that were compelling: "I was shaking my fist at the God of trash-talk," followed later by "I said a prayer for anyone who never came back. I said a prayer to the God who answers back. I said one for you if you chased your Gods away." Unfortunately the next poem, titled "Marie," was little more than the listing of names that does nothing but confuse the reader to the point where I began to skim this long poem -- two and a half pages -- to get to the end. I don't feel guilty for doing this; I feel I've missed nothing.
In "Gladetown Cemetery" it felt like most of the poem was filler, extra words put on paper to ensure more black than white on the page. I became an archeologist, digging for something worthwhile. I was pleased when I find these lines: "I saw a ghost in there. I almost expected to. It was two feet tall and quiet. It went between the graves. It had a kind of business. I don't know what it was." And then "It started to disappear to places. It wanted out of there. That's what was coming through to me. This was at dusk. Exactly dusk. The ghost shrank with the darkness."
"I cinch our nights closer to us," is the only line I love from "I Am Yours." The rest of the poem is filled with strange lines such as "Nets cast because they exist and we are where we walk, strong as cans, extolled by night." I'm so confused by the line "strong as cans" that the entire poem is lost on me.
It's not until I get to "A Paradox" on page twenty-three where I can almost say I like a poem in its entirety. I'm not sure I completely understand the poem, but perhaps I don't have to in order to enjoy it. That I am almost saying I like it should speak volumes, after all, shouldn't a reader know if she likes a poem? Yet I cannot commit to liking the poem in its completeness but I feel this is the closest I've gotten in this book. The first lines of the poem are good: "Although there aren't rules you are against them. You bring curfew and we break it." And later, "You were the song you hummed."
Another poem I don't quite get but I like enough of it is "More Like a Factory." It reads well and has some interesting lines: "He drank like his mother. It took her six nips to fly, eight years to drive stick shift. What she wanted most was to be good-for-nothing. She sat you down and told you so." A couple of stanzas later in the poem another set of good lines: "She was insistent. She was a chant. Her words came down through penny wire. Her husband said her star petered out. It wasn't like a bomb went off. She was never quite his. She wasn't exactly anybody. He couldn't remember if he wanted her or not."
"Reporter" immediately follows. It begins sort of ho-hum, but the last stanza is what really makes the poem: "The memory of them recurs. Makes me drive too fast and sing too loud and eat their music, which isn't anything at all -- an inward yawp that sounds only for those, like me, who fled with their windows wide, who prickled in its irregular breeze. But when it hits, I hear the question phrased thusly: Do I want to save the changes?"
"Over mud, I walked the plank toward God who got up again recently, and I rose early to meet him. Check out this dream: There was Jesus, only he was just that long-haired kid who lives down the street and is always smoking cigarettes beside my porch and it was me who woke him up who bailed him out, because his alarm had been going off for hours. I was pretty nice. I said, 'Hey, Dude. Get up, it's Easter.'" So is the compelling beginning of "Let's Collaborate." Unfortunately the poem then loses focus, or the reader loses the poem's intended focus, and the rest of the poem is just words arranged into meaningless sentences. Not all is lost though as the poem ends with a lovely line: "We could say, 'Fuck it,' or we could gather the proof necessary to believe in everything no one can see."
The poem "Our Air is More a Branch" does the same thing -- starts with a few good lines but then loses focus and loses the reader: "I know if we sit together long enough I'm going to put my arm around you. We're going to lose time. We'll be surprised, later, when the day has changed, than it was order and now is not, and we were going a great distance but it was always just another rise on the vague path that follows the ridge." Unfortunately there is no good finishing line to end the poem, I found it confusing and disjointed from the rest of the poem: "The evening is after that. There's a baseball game. There's a pitch in baseball that is fast as hell, and is more notable for being completely accurate, and actually has no velocity. With a pitch like that, it's true, there are a million different things to think for a second to hurry after, but don't." Even after several readings I'm not sure how the beginning of the poem, which talks about being with someone, gets to the end of the poem, which talks about a pitch in baseball. Surely there's a transition in there, surely the baseball pitch is a metaphor for something. Unfortunately I wasn't able to decipher either.
"Another Eden," the second to last poem in this collection, repeats the history of so many poems before it -- the beginning is wonderful, but then it falls apart and leaves the reader wondering if two people authored the poem: "Serendipity, we had it. We weren't looking and there it was. The river snuck up on us. The river was always paddling. We were glad to see each other, so glad we lost the canoe. That didn't make a bit of difference to us because we were making love."
Ultimately this book left me deeply unsatisfied. There was one poem I could say I liked in its entirety ("A Paradox") -- maybe. Some poems contained a few lines I liked, but when flipping through the entire book I find more pages than not are blank of my notes. No underlined stanzas, no stars beside lines that I found especially wonderful. I finished the book and wondered if I'd just read poetry. - Courtney Birst
 
In the poems of Family System, Jack Christian is looking for his father through a via negativa—through what's been carved out, the branches not burnt, the beer he didn't drink, the shorted porch lights. He is searching for his mother through collage and the chance meeting of humaffalo and dog ghost. And it just so happens that these are our parents, too. But there's nothing grand about it. This is a simple world to step into, free of apocalypse, ascension, and exorcism. We're nice as we wake Jesus up after he sleeps through his alarm clock on Easter morning. We understand that there's little repercussion in choosing warm laundry over salvation. When we're eulogizing squirrels in shoeboxes, it is ourselves lowering into the earth. The paradox is recited in simple terms. Like when Neil Diamond sings, "intensity is meaning,/and in this there is rebirth and also absence,/a paternal kind." Where the hell has he been all of our collective childhood?
Family System opens with the title poem, a kind of meditation upon the structure of the universe as parents in a dependent relationship. The narrator thinks of them in alternately humble, exalting, and derogatory terms. They are infinity, "a long ride in a station wagon," "inside two plants/joined at the stalk," and/or "a tomato slice stuck in a fly wheel." They are "too busy convulsing" to know how they form the universe, so here we are figuring it out for them.
This collection quickly reveals itself for what it is—a new method for the revelation of the noumenal/numinous in our generation; the new finger pointing towards the relationships, archetypes, journeys, and sequences of symbols that draw us closer to the world begging to trail us back into material reality. This is the work of poet as maker, as arranger of bones, as adept necromancer, as most pathetic at prayer. He teaches his methods, "Wisteria and twilia and an airplane/Then an airplane then a palm frond/My ritual was azaleas bloomed/crocus bloomed." Now what's yours? He lays out the trail that is branch that is air. Here's your invitation.
Christian is particularly aware of the space created through surrealist collage and unification of opposites. Not in that the tiny paradoxes he lays before us are stranger, more shocking, or even very far from our traditional chance meetings of umbrellas and sewing machines on operating tables, but in that they are built with pure intention, a focused eye and a steady guiding hand that nudges us in the space behind the curtain, as if to say "look at what I've opened for you!" And a whole new church or playground of thought emerges:
It's raining, but Matt says, that isn't rain.
You make tea with it or it gets to you. It's an antelope.   
In other converted basements the people speak Arawakan—
I'm just saying. Ours belonged to Harris;
we call it Harris's House.
His spirit wanders like the rest of us.
What we want is to stand in a breath.
Often, this is called the coffee sprout.
Some imply there is a blue rodent
but they are being Kafkaesque
and are drunk, or else enamored of the inarticulate.
The shock is lessened, but the joy of revealing the lessons that zen koans and new metaphors for the lotus sutra can teach us. But it's clear that Christian didn't write these poems thinking he was going to save any souls, not even his own, and this is why no spiritual toes are stepped on. Here you simply crack open your skull and see what leaks out. Christian gives you no mantras in a foreign tongue or specters of long-dead sages. He simply hands you that which already resides there between that stale French baguette and your tenth-grade Humanities teacher. He unifies what exists and explodes that which has been begging for it.
Christian retells the parable of the chariot as only a twenty-first century American can understand. And that's exactly what we need. That's exactly what our on-the-road-to-what-we-have-to-start-admitting-is-enlightenment-poetry-reading-masses need to hear. Thank all of the gods that someone is stepping up the plate to give it them. "A thing is defined by the sum of its parts." Thank Blake's Satan we don't fall for that trick anymore. But Christian is there like any good trickster to spark up the argument—consciously or unconsciously, he's making you look at your demon. Freeing you of control; not doing a damn thing at all. He's not trying; he's simply one of the lucky ones who can make their poems simultaneously their own journey and leave them staked as signposts—there's gold in them there hills and here there be monsters:
In the yard a tarn is growing,
is defining itself by parts of itself.

That is what we call chance
and plot its progressions on a board

and say what flies are Purple Martins
and nothing is a condition of the magnolia.

Nothing is floating inside a jar.
We can place it. Then, we hold it close.

We push it against the door.

So how a bug? So how this martin frozen
and this one bubbled-up, and these make one bird and go?
Aside from the ever-present goal of calling attention to language itself and how its borders define our individual manifestations of reality, the melding of simple sentence structures and disjointed, clipped syntax creates a voice that is authoritative only in its easy acceptance of these phrases—that they exist without the established purpose of grammar. They are graceful in their purely aesthetic selves. Here we see an evolution of Dickinson, Stein, and Jorie Graham, accessibility that stems from a finely wrought attention to those intentional silences, admissions of absence, of the unutterable:
What about a tar patch. Which keeps one later.
Which more easily taken for confidence. Which for anarchy.
     What about
an uppermost part. What about on a roadtrip.
What, for the sake of confusion.
And do your feet turn in the shape of hallelujah.
Do the prayers travel well. Are they like fruitcake.
In any case, how do they meander. Or, is it we'd better fling
     them.
Are those insightful to hear about or just kind of
some private thoughts. Like noodles then. Discernable in
     darkness maybe.
Likewise, the tone, a fairly unemotional, detached voice, guides us through this realm of secular prayer and paradox, the small joke behind eyelids, and it gives the reader even more immediate access to what is being discussed. It strikes one as foolish that these observations were not made on one's own. It comes across as obvious, but difficult—like we just couldn't sit still long enough to get there. Christian goes there for us, certainly no easy journey, but there is no evidence of the struggle in the writing, except for what is brought back. It's a voice that is engaged in precisely its business and nothing else. It lets go of the boundaries and dives into the holes, dragging you along if you can keep up.
This is a book that is meant to be read slowly, each paradox and clipped line savored and understood. If you do so they'll change something in the way you view your place in the world, like all great poems. They'll leave you breathless, on the verge of tears for short moments. It could be heaven; it could be cake. Either way, did you realize your leg is on fire? That mine has grown longer since opening this book? That my dog could guide you to hell and back out again? Oh. Okay. Just wondering—on to the next poem.
Christian needs no florid images or thick descriptive language. No esoteric knowledge is required for absorption. This is your initiation in-and-of-itself—your willingness to disconnect from logic. Where there are endings, they are definitive and elsewise they don't exist, just like the gods that our narrator is trying to pray to. It's a Blakeian outlook put in a post-structuralist blender. It teaches analysis without judgment, a standard rule for mediation. And what is poetry but mantra bringing something back with it? Hopefully, you, the reader, will make this leap too, bring both your legs back with you, land on earth that is a little less solid, and leave you a little shaky—just shaky enough that some of these words will become new flesh. - Crystal Hoffman
 
When Percy Bysshe Shelley, the English Romantic poet, described poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” he was inviting challenge. For even if we admit that poets are a little ignored, to call them “legislators of the world” is to suggest that they, more than anyone, are our moral or political conscience. And nobody is going to agree with that without pause.
Still, I am reminded of Shelley’s claim when I read Jack Christian’s first book, “Family System,” which won the 2012 Colorado Prize for Poetry, awarded last May. Because Christian, who now lives in Massachusetts, but who grew up in Virginia, seems always to be describing some large, elusive truth that he has observed from a distance and is now trying to communicate. This isn’t to say his work lacks intimacy, but rather that the intimacy is in the tone and in the confidence, not in the proximity of the speakers to us. Christian is like a man singing to us from across the street, or from the opposite platform in a subway station; he is earnest but not unhinged; less a jester than a holy fool. 
Published last month by the Center for Literary Publishing, “Family System” contains poems that are distinctly American. It mentions people like Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, and Daniel Schorr; and places like the Upper and Lower Catawba, Agawam, Chicago, Connecticut, the Mill River, and Interstate 81. And it does so with the sort of affable and associative logic that American poets like John Ashbery and James Tate have practiced, or are known for. But I wouldn’t say this book is primarily, or merely, American. A good regionalist will always speak to what is universal, and Jack Christian has his eye on that which we all will encounter, regardless of where or when or how we are alive. 
Consider the poem below, “Poem of My Hope,” in which a graveyard is described as a place that “comforts us, because it hides death/but insists death is not hidden from us”.
 
This month, Sarah is down and frequent in the backyard.
We make a point of eating together.
She’s annoyed I called Connecticut
a dead sea-creature, mad I said her big cousin
is easier than making babies
and her children should be terrified
or else content to house their unknown hostility
until it localizes as stomach cancer.
What’s crazy is how a family is its own school of painting,
how in mine the men carve the hedges
and the women carve their dresses
and when they get together their favorite color is skin.
It’s obvious that these are white houses and those are white rocks
and there is the graveyard we enjoy
because it comforts us, because it hides death
but insists death is not hidden from us
and one day we’ll lie around each other.
Sarah, you say you think about this. So then, consider me
in the act of bringing a thing over to you.
I’m waiting by the row that fronts our street,
where I’m sure this is the light we can practice with.
And that man in the next lot, he is our uncle, who grew tall,
and has stood for the decade since he gave up the church
and became the hoop at the end of the driveway.
- EDWARD MULLANY

cover art by Rachel B Glaser

Jack Christian, Let's Collaborate, Magic Helicopter Press, 2010.

Here are the rewards of keeping up: humaffalos, cryptozoology, belief as a hillside (accomplished in reverse), and an all dog chapel of lost dog souls. Whether it’s Thanksgiving or breakfast, the ecstatic and the intimate take every meal together. These poems show friends, lovers, and “Andy Griffiths sold by money-order” all attempting to live unbored among the “parts unknowable and so impossible to tame.” Here, the mayor’s always a real Joe Miller, thinking’s always a thought experiment, and the best way home is through the nest of cub ghosts. Jack Christian's poetry and criticism has appeared in Jubilat, Black Warrior Review, Mississippi Review, DIAGRAM and more.

from notnostrums: "Marie" & "Rural Management"
from The Cimarron Review: "Poem of My Hope"

Let’s Collaborate

I was thinking maybe you’d write one for me
and give it to me and I could say it’s mine
and never tell anyone, but always
give you credit in my mind, which, if you look at it
the right way, counts most anyway.
How about it? A guy can always hope
until his fingers can’t uncross, for something
the opposite of The Old Man and the Sea
where the big one jumps in his boat
when he’s given up fishing – but he’s hungry
but he lacks real bait. When you’re my age you realize
that kind of hope is where presidents come from.
Over mud, they walk the plank toward God
who got up again recently, and I rose early to meet Him.
Check out this dream: I was Jesus, only I was
just that long-haired kid who lives down the street
and is always smoking cigarettes beside my porch
and it was another me who woke Him up
who bailed Him out, because His alarm had been going off
for hours. I was pretty nice. I said, “Hey Dude, get up
it’s Easter again.” The daffodils survived the freeze.
The Mexican kids were in the alley crushing pink eggs
with a soccer ball and a bike. They were crazy
with palm fronds. I was kind of still asleep, and you know
talking like my people who come from the country.
I said my favorite place is a road in Virginia
at a certain speed so that when I scream
over the rise at Chancellorsville I don’t lose it
on the battlefields. All I see are placards and shrubs.
And if I make it, I start to sing whatever’s on the radio.
And when the road bends like the general’s arm
and shoots me straight through the valley’s heart
there’s a kid humming “Loving Nancy” in the ditch
and the stuff on my face is as much blood
as it is dust. Then, suddenly, it’s the warm
glowing night I thought we could all ride into together
one day. The sky’s vacant like an air-brush painting
like a Super-Sargasso Sea, where what’s lost
has the responsibility to pop back up again.
Given the apartment theory of dimensions
we could say, “Fuck it,” or we could gather the proof
necessary to believe in everything no one can see.

An Ape

I walk a dog-colored thought to the All Dog Chapel
of Lost Dog Souls
where I purchase a translucent retriever.
Though I gather he comes without a name
I know to call him Bounder.
I feel this strange fire. A statue leaps through itself
on the courthouse promontory. A slow-moving humaffalo
crosses the street. My hands are indulged by palsy.
There’s a bawl I make
when I can think of nothing but warm laundry.
I think this is a sort of salvation.
I walk through a more forgotten afternoon
proceeded by similar, later afternoons.
A fold of infants is shepherded by me; are guarded by my mouth.
I arrange my bones in a pleasing figure
so that I might fall to sleep inside them.
 
 
FAMILY SYSTEM
 
We're in a giant mom and dad linked by a heart.
We're going round in circles in the figure eight
made by their bodies and cinched by their heart.
Where their lips touch is another kind of heart.
Where their stomachs meet a third type of heart.
They sort of know this, but they're too busy
convulsing. They think they're a constellation
fastening in space. And we're going with them
on a vague run for groceries. It's a long ride
in a station wagon. It's the screwy roads of an upperclass
subdivision. You think they resemble a galaxy
spinning, but to them you think it's like being inside
two plants joined at the stalk. Which might be right—
I've also been guessing. And wanting to twist
like they do, wanting to try some weird positions
and see what happens. I saw a model of it once.
A smaller arch passed under a bigger one around
what looked like a tomato slice stuck on a flywheel.
That's not how I'd describe it to them.
Magic Helicopter Author Interview: Jack Christian

Jack Christian is author of the MHP chapbook release, Let’s Collaborate, and the 2012 Winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry, Family System. Chasing him after that release and while he’s out doing some readings, here we are, stoked to present a little chat with the man. Keep going, for some insight on those two books, his view on whiskey, and what he’s working on now.
1. You published Let’s Collaborate, a chapbook of poems, with us in April 2009 (and again in April 2010, though both print runs have sold out!). Four years past that collection, how do you view those poems now?
I still really love those poems. They came from a particular time when I was starting to think of poetry differently and more seriously as a life endeavor, and so I was really pushing myself to learn more and read more and write better and differently. Those poems were totally tied to coming up to Massachusetts and meeting Mike Young, and Rachel Glaser, Noah Gershman, Chris Cheney and a bunch of other people who were my friends and who were doing fantastic stuff and were up for big adventures, like pointless and long walks from Noho to Amherst late at night.
2. Your debut full-length collection, Family System, was recently chosen as the 2012 Winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Major congrats on that, buddy. How do you see those poems standing next to the ones from Let’s Collaborate? What can/should readers expect from Family System?
The poems of Let’s Collaborate are kind of the heart of the Family System book in a lot of ways, both for what they are and for how I think they gird the other poems in the collection. Family System works in a few more different registers and forms whereas the Let’s Collaborate poems are more of a piece. The Family System poems move more into the faith quest and get maybe a little more clear eyed about our interactions with landscape and the natural world. A few more feelings, a few more ideas.
3. What was the process of getting Family System published like? Where else did you send it? How did it end up where it did?
The best advice I got was to plan to send the manuscript to at least 20 places a year for three years. So, I suppose I got up to about forty five (sorry, my “five” key is broken) over the course of a little over two years. In the meantime, with friends and other writers and my own research, I culled a list of places I’d like to publish it and started sending it, and the Colorado Prize was on that list. A lot of poets I admire have received that prize, so I was honored and humbled to be in their company. And, I greatly admire the contest judge Elizabeth Willis. But, also, that Family System came out where it did (and that it came out at all) involved a good amount of happenstance. I was just a hitter hoping the pitcher would give me something to hit.
4. How do you know when a poem is ready (maybe I mean “to be written” or “to be sent out” or “to be done with by you,” this you can decide)? What is a Jack Christian poem?
I guess I experience a sort of pleasant brain buzz in the minutes or days before hacking out a draft of a poem, or at least I remember this in hindsight. And, of course, this won’t happen at all usually if I don’t intentionally carve out a space for it. So, in some ways I’d define one of my poems as the document of that process. What my poems are, whatever they are, is changing year to year and project to project. For the poems in Let’s Collaborate and Family System, I was really in to boiling down and condensing (except for a few notable times when I wasn’t). Lately, I’ve been trying to let things breathe more. Trying to build more fragile castles. IDK. I’m never sure when one’s ready to send out. I just sort of pull together a submission, make some final edits take a deep breath and start firing.
 5. The other night, you read at Mellow Pages Library, a brilliant little space in Brooklyn, alongside Gabe Durham and others. What did you think of MPL? How was the reading? (Secret question inside this question is always: do you like readings?)
Loved Mellow Pages! Someone gave me a flask of whiskey that I nervously sipped in the run up to the reading (sipped it as if it was a High Life), and so I nearly loved it too much :) But, the reading was great, the space was great. I enjoyed talking with Jacob and his buddies who were there and I saw a bunch of old friends.
The short answer to yr secret question is I love readings. The long answer is that it’s a complicated love. (As in, you do anything enough and it gets complicated.) I always love the energy and camaraderie. I love what our brains while we listen to do people read, and I love readings best when people calmly, confidently stand up with their poems and Bring It.
6. You’re a whiskey fella? What’s your whiskey of choice, if chosen, if not passed to you in a flask? (Or if not really a whiskey guy, what’s your drink of choice? As in, if you could have any ONE—okay okay two drinks—before a reading, what would they be?)
Racer Five. Not too cold. I try to stay away from whiskey as much as possible. Occasionally, some of my friends give me the good stuff, and I appreciate it, but I never know what it’s called. So, whiskey for me is like a really awesome band I’m putting off getting way into.
7. What are you working on now? What are you currently reading?
For new projects, I’ve got a prose manuscript about getting engaged to be married called The Apartment on Market Street that I’ve just started to send out, and I’m (optimistically speaking) two thirds of the way toward having a second full length poetry book, tentatively called If You Love It So Much Why Won’t You Fuck It Up?
Readingwise, I’ve been on a fiction bender for for the last two years. An eclectic mix of Amy Hempel, Nicholson Baker, Donald Antrim and Richard Ford in particular. As for poetry, John Ashbery’s Quick Question has had me riveted, as has Peter Gizzi’s Threshold Songs. Also, most recently, I read Dan Mager’s Partyknife cover to cover, telling myself I’d stop when I got distracted, but never approaching anything like distraction. -  magichelicopter.tumblr.com/


Call It the Melodrama of Starting Out: An Interview with Jack Christian

Most of my favorite booky conversations with Jack Christian took place on a disc golf course connected to a dog park that was a couple miles away from our respective homes in Northampton, MA. The quiet of the woods plus the beers in our backpacks really encouraged the kind discursive arts conversation I can only really enjoy when I’m sure there’s nobody nearby rolling their eyes. These same conditions also allowed for opportunities to pet big friendly dogs, and for the creation of really generous disc golf rules like, If you hit the metal basket at all, you get to retake your shot.
This interview, conducted over email, covers a lot of our pet topics—music, editing anxiety, arrangement anxiety, titling anxiety, Massachusetts, art/work/life balance, what writing is for—but whereas our disc golf conversations were always fraught with the uncertainty that whatever we were working on could collapse, dead, at any moment, this conversation is instead a look back at the fraught creation of Jack’s first book on the occasion of its publication.
Jack’s poetry collection, Family System, was the winner of the 2012 Colorado Prize for Poetry, plucked from a pool of 650+ manuscripts and chosen by final judge Elizabeth Willis, who said of the book, “Jack Christian’s marvelous first collection is as smart and filled with raw wonder as if it were capturing our genetic text from outer space and revealing that what it really looks like is your hand, up close… These poems read like the solution to a problem so old it could only be written in the future, which is now.”
In Family System, I’m interested in the relationship between the wilderness everywhere and the tight line-level control that so dominates the voice of the book. This is such an outdoor book—rivers, bogs, creeks, trees, ivy, deer—and yet these things feel to me remembered/honored from indoors after the fact. An overt example is “You’re Right I Did Enjoy the Excursion to the Bungalow” (“and the experience of the daffodil / where the waterfall was what a surprise”) in which the trip is clearly mediated by the telling, but it persists in subtle ways throughout. How is this register achieved, do you think? And how consciously?
You’re exactly right. The poems, in the moments of their composition, were “recollected in tranquility.” This reminds me of an old joke between Mike Young and I where we imagined giving a reading, and prefacing each poem by saying, “And, I wrote this one in my room, at my desk, looking out the window.” In many ways, that’s the true fact of each poem.
Also, there are several confluences that led me to indulge the wilderness as such a strong, ongoing motif. One was that as a person in my late twenties at the time of writing most of these, I would say I was experiencing a certain wildness of mind that included entering a next-phase of adulthood, the choice to stake my claim as a writer, (which included, to some degree, shirking leftover bread-winner and patriarchal assumptions), moving from the southeast to New England, experiencing what I term the Graduate School Void, and the resultant anxieties, excitements, and terrors implicit in all these things. So, the wilderness was a ready conveyor-belt for all that.
In the time I was writing the poems, I also felt a certain troubling tension regarding the imagination. I’d say that for all my desire to celebrate the imagination, and to do so in the great out of doors, with all its inherent sublime-ness, I was starting to recognize that my imagination was very good at making me feel also, occasionally, like shit. Like, I could construct these whimsical woodsy poems, but what were they really worth? What was their purpose and value? What was mine? Could the poems sustain the thing I was started to feel compelled to think of more terminally as My Life? Call it The Melodrama of Starting Out.
What did you figure out? What can poems sustain?
All of those questions I still have. I’m not sure what poems can sustain. The appropriate cliché would be to say I realized more fully how poems are like love or butterflies, if you trouble them too much, they go away. That’s why I’m glad to be also a teacher, and a husband, and really, a pretty spectacular practitioner of Frisbee golf.
Then, there’s the move to New England. All of the poems in the book were written in Massachusetts—the few that were started in North Carolina (from where I reflected on earlier times in Virginia) were heavily rewritten, and even they were started at a time when I already knew I was fixing to leave—so I guess I did that fairly stereotypical writer-thing: I moved up north and wrote about the landscape down south. But, even insofar as the poems deal in Southern landscapes, they are dealing with the views of the Connecticut River Valley and my daily drive on the little roads from Northampton over to UMass just as much. This enabled me to see the landscape stuff as tools for me to play with, and I didn’t feel I owed anything to any particularly real place.
Dan Bailey wrote his Drunk Sonnets drunk and edited sober, George Carlin would write his material sober and then punch it up high. How are these poems informed by having written them single and edited them married?
So, single : sober :: married : wasted? Or, is it vice versa? In actuality, I had just met and started dating the woman who became my wife right as I began to put the book together. So, the equation is not so tidy. But, meeting Liane and coming to the end of grad school were some helpful external markers for drawing a ring around the project and working to push the manuscript toward publication.
These questions are making me realize this, Gabe: Without large amounts of existential terror, I’d be content to sit and watch 162 straight baseball games. I dare you to ask me anything to which I can’t honestly reply: FEAR. Now, I’m married, I’m out of school, the book is happening, and I have to get good with the knowledge I’ll never make one that way again. And, that kind of scares me, too.
Early in your collection comes the longer poem, “Marie,” a surreal local gossip “newsletter”/snowball that gobbles up names as it rolls down the mountain. My wife Liz says “Marie” is either one of her favorite poems or, when the mood strikes her, her straight-up favorite poem. So today I asked her why. She said it indulges and toys with her voyeuristic side, that it really gets at a particular kind of small town gossip that is very Southern in nature. It seems to me that the indulgence of our voyeurism is a really reasonable thing to ask of poetry, but what do you think?
Hmm. To answer this, I’m going to transplant “voyeurism” with “obsessiveness,” at least for a moment. Then, I can say: when an obsessive snowballing happens around the themes of local language and people’s names, the result can feel voyeuristic. I like poems that offer a glimpse into a brain at work, or a person navigating a particular place, or particular system, especially when there’s a nod to the absurd in the plain-spoken and/or the seemingly rational.
One thing poetry can do really well is to throw a mirror up to how things are, and that is a very reasonable thing to ask of it. That we are all human, trying to understand how to be human, while seeking confirmation we are like other humans seems a good place to cue Poetry. Maybe that’s how I can bring voyeurism and obsessiveness back together again: that they come from this same dilemma of existence.
There’s also the aspect of Making that happens: there’s a joy in combining and swirling typically mundane fragments of speech. Doesn’t this sort of explain Flarf, and even Family Guy and The Simpsons? We recognize this as readers/viewers, and, in my favorite poems, we feel invited to try it ourselves. Which is a funny invitation, really, because we’re so often already doing it anyway. Maybe then it’s more like a confirmation.
A poem that has faced a radical edit is the one that gave your Magic Helicopter chapbook its title, “Let’s Collaborate.” If you’ll allow it, I’d like to unbury the poem’s excised beginning … 
I was thinking maybe you’d write one for me
and give it to me and I could say it’s mine
and never tell anyone, but always
give you credit in my mind, which, if you look at it
the right way, counts most anyway.
How about it? A guy can always hope
until his fingers can’t uncross, for something
the opposite of
The Old Man and the Sea

where the big one jumps in his boat
when he’s given up fishing – but he’s hungry
but he lacks real bait. When you’re my age you realize
that kind of hope is where presidents come from.

Now that these lines are gone, the poem begins:
Over mud, they walk the plank toward God
who got up again recently, and I rose early to meet Him.

And I think, wow, what a different kind of poem we have here, in which the initial “collaboration” is no longer artistic but spiritual, and it becomes a poem that resists the “one thing follows another” clarity of the original’s line of thought.
It seems to me that another one of the hats that the poet gets to wear is the deliberately haphazard janitor, the dude who sweeps at his footprints as he leaves a room, but only so much. How much does this role animate your editing process? And how does cutting the rational aid self-expression?
It’s funny you brought back those lines from an earlier version of “Let’s Collaborate.” I almost forgot I’d cut them. They still feel to me so much a part of the poem. I felt a pang of disappointment even now that they don’t exist in the book version. But, I’m still glad I got rid of them. They started to seem too loose and too literal, and I couldn’t save them or fix them.
To answer your question: it might be those lines started to make too much sense, and I found myself more interested in making meaning swerve. I feel like rational-thought process can start to demand more rational-thought process, so when I can break out of that, that seems like where the poem starts—at the irrational idea to collaborate with some imaginary God.
I kind of wish I could’ve saved them though. There are writers out there who are frequently great at taking kind of ephemeral lines and making whole poems or stories out of them. I find it extremely difficult to do that. Generally, if I get headed in that direction, I’ll get kind of neurotic and go around shoring everything up. I’d like to learn whatever that patience and subtlety is. It’d probably be like learning to paint in watercolors when you started in oils.
To me, it seemed like the book itself was probably resisting those lines you cut. There’s an austerity to the voice in Family System that, when you do it over and over, becomes a kind of contract with the reader. I could imagine, though, another book of your poems that employs much more of the buddy-buddy “direct address to the reader” kind of voice. Which, come to think of it, is a lot closer to the voice of the personal essays you’ve begun to publish this year.
You’re right. The way I was teaching myself to write and practice poetry was resisting those lines. Part of what you generously call “austerity,” I recognize as an uncertainty regarding just what I can get away with in a poem, and a desire to quit while I’m ahead, to add by subtraction. So, yes, the obvious direction for a next project is to track back to the stuff I didn’t let myself keep the last time, and that’s what I’m mired in now with my current manuscript, the “Apartment on Market Street”—the question of what’s going to stay in the basket?
Yeah, it can be dangerous, those late nights of revising when the internal editor dial is set way too high and starts whispering, “Burn it all down! The basket too,” and every now and then you read somebody whose greatest editorial influence seems to be the way time has eroded ancient parchments. How does that internal wilderness change from a poem’s inception to personal edit to workshop edit to magazine edit to book edit?
I’ve always been partial to thinking of the poem as a container. The poem has to be solid enough to contain whatever wildness or energy or idea it has animating it. It’s the basket holding what made it. So, in editing I’m trying to make it a better basket. For these poems, each is kind of a one-off. This was influenced heavily by my participating in workshops, which offered a valuable pace-setting routine, and often allowed each poem to be presented and valued as an entity, so that after each meeting I could kind of hit the reset button and face the blank page again.
For editing the book, I found it very hard to get my head around presenting 30-40 poems together. For the last however many years, I’d been attempting just to write one good poem at a time, which had amounted my feeling that I’d basically written 30 of the same poem (each momentarily disguised to me as so totally different). It felt like I had 30 guests that refused to sit at the same dinner table. Or 30 lead-singers. Or 30 community organizers.
In this period, I did crazy things. I made them all into prose poems. I took all the titles off. I tried making them all use the same pronouns in the weird hope I might magically end up with an ongoing, book-length serial poem. With each of these drastic edits, I was hoping for some silver bullet. What ultimately happened was that I put the poems back roughly the same way they each started, but with with a few small changes that over time started to accumulate.
Maybe this is a good example of the conundrum of self-editing: you are with this thing that you made, you are attempting to make it better, as you do so you come across increasing evidence that you have no real idea of what makes it good, or what it’s even about. Then, (and this is the real kicker), in response to this realization, you don’t make the rational choice. The rational choice would be to stop. But what do you do? You keep going, you get obsessed with it, you think maybe you can fix it by arranging the poems in some cockamamie way. Like: “by season.” You brag to your friends and your family that you have had a breakthrough. And then, about a week later, you take it all apart again. You start thinking things like, “Damn, if I only had more summer poems.”
Before I started putting my own book-length manuscripts together, I would look at a book’s organizing principle as this sacrosanct thing—the only way the book could be organized. Now I know that it’s usually wildly arbitrary, that it’s always one of the last things done to a book, and that it’s vital for a manuscript’s survival. Without the cockamamie arrangement, we’re toast. And that said, it still feels like a holy moment, turning the page and seeing a 2 but in a fashion invented by the Romans and as sturdy as their columns themselves, and thinking, “Ah. Here comes Part II. As it must.” So what did you settle on? Was the key the dopplegangers? The seasons? The rivers? The family?
That’s just the thing. I never exactly settled on anything. At least consciously. I think you can relate to this in Fun Camp, Gabe. You described this well to me once as a process of “trying to keep things away from each other.” This was something I wanted to do, but I actually required a lot of help. I couldn’t do it on my own for whatever reason, the biggest of which was likely The Pervasive Nature of Narrative.
My goal was to subvert a narrative accumulation that took place between the poems. This would seem easy, since the poems were written with no larger narrative framework in mind, but in fact, narrative is so damn creepy and hegemonic, that it became difficult. What kept happening is, as I put the poems together, they started making weird plots in my mind, and, if I wasn’t careful, then I started using those frames for making choices about the poems. This was not good. It invited the idea that I was going to bake some bread, but then, of course, I could only fail in terms of the expectation that I make the bread rise. What I needed was 30 individual pieces of sushi: self-contained, making no promises to each other, but still resolutely on the same plate.
Eventually I went to my MFA thesis defense and took away the critique that whatever the merits of the poems themselves, I seemed to have no real clue how to put them together. In fact, that was the only comment one of my readers made. Perhaps it was the most valuable comment. What came of this was that another of my readers offered to help me reorganize the manuscript. So, one afternoon, we laid the poems all out on a long dining room table, and without a lot of discussion, put them basically into what is now the present order. It took about 20 minutes.
Around this time too was when the manuscript became titled Family System. It was rejected well over 50 times before that, and rejected a few more times afterward, too—so it may be that it was due to get picked up and these changes are of little consequence. But I believe they probably had a lot to do with it. Crazy that there’s a possible book out there with a totally different order of poems, under the title New Revised Standard (my penultimate title) which both is and is not an entirely different book.
To me the problem with the title New Revised Standard is that even though on the 4th pass it registers in my memory banks as a Bible translation, a wire crossed on times 1-3 and I thought you were naming the book after a font. I mentally shrank your ambitious title into one referencing the way letters look.
Your reaction to New Revised Standard is I think why ultimately the book didn’t get called that. I still like that phrase, especially when I imagine it as simultaneously the name of a Bible translation, and this wonderfully contradictory but bold-sounding phrase. It refers to a spiritual text, but sounds completely bureaucratic. Ultimately, it’s too fraught. It throws another level of obfuscation onto a collection that probably always needed to begin to strive toward clarity and cohesion. Like one of my readers told me: “Family System is weird enough.”
So how come Liane said it had to be called Family System? What secrets did she know?
At some point Liane said, “You have to call is Family System.” She said this as if exasperated that the book was not already called Family System. She knew the whole thing needed to be simpler and more direct than I thought it could/should be. She took the title that was staring me in the face and made me consider it.
It’s so satisfying to be able to submit to advice when so much of the time you just can’t. A few weeks ago I was talking to Liz about my nonfiction book about a day that happened a year ago, and she said, real casual and confident, “What you’ve gotta do is just not mention the date at all—because nobody cares.” And I knew she was right. And then she went on to say other things I should do and I had to say, “Stop, stop, I don’t need to hear that!” So quickly after this breakthrough, my wall went right back up. What you’re talking about strikes me as a useful balance. You’ve got to know when to listen and know when to be stubborn. Know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.
One poem that really feels like it’s talking to the title poem is “Poem of My Hope,” which is concerned with how the Family operates during and after life:
What’s crazy is how a family is its own school of painting,how in mine the men carve the hedges
and the women carve their dresses
and when they get together their favorite color is skin.
This poem also strikes me as a sort of bridge to the voice and concerns of your nonfiction for its somewhat more plainspoken concern with the ways a family/domestic life is both unique and universal.
The major anxiety at the heart of Family System, to my mind (and not that I knew this while writing) was the dual anxiety of being from a family and of moving toward starting a family. That’s also present in “The Apartment on Market Street.” Those lines you reference come from the idea that families speak their own languages, or, really, that they are their own languages. Both Family and Language are omnipresent and idiosyncratic. You can never be outside of language and you can never be outside your family.
And, really, you wouldn’t want to be. Even in opposition, they define you. They are two terms of existence. And they make no sense, or they make a very weird sort of sense, and they make it mostly by repeating. Good stories involve recursion. Where does recursion happen more often than in a family? - by  Gabe Durham


Jack Christian by Mike Young :

When BOMB asked me to interview Jack Christian about his book Family System, I knew right away we needed some rich food between us. Jack’s poems burn a lot of calories. They’re hopscotchers and spitballers. What they do with their eyebrows is faster than jogging but pointed toward prayer. Family System is a mangy, stone-skipping, clever, juking, ropeswing-over-the-swimming-hole-of-selfhood book of poems. They are shaking their fist at the God of trash talk. They say, “How sane to be a knucklehead with a wagon to tote a friend in.” Jack Christian wrote a book called Family System, which won the 2012 Colorado Poetry Prize, and this book says, “We decide the road looks like a nomadic leaf sculptor / went walking up it and down it. That his life’s work took a day.”
So email wouldn’t cut it. We needed to drive through a snowstorm and eat bourbon-chocolate pie and fried chicken and andouille sausage in Western Massachusetts’s best (and/or only) Cajun outpost. And we needed to talk about Family System so Jack could show me why I’m wrong, mostly, to Huckleberry Finnize him.
In talking to Jack, I was hoping to learn more about how he saw the titular concept of family, and what “family” meant to the restless swimmer I read in these poems, the one who would just as soon dislocate his shoulder in an inner tube as hang back on the bank eating civilized sweet pickles with an aunt-in-law. Craft? For sure: I wanted to talk about Jack’s sly over-articulated phrasing, like “Our tunes were of motorboat” and “The Swampwater Baptism includes a gator as expected / and a man who rides the gator, which is permitted, / and a gown that gets wet, but not exclusively.”
Plus if we ended up with an interview bigger than the book itself, I thought maybe it would make Jack look super cool and important in a you-know-you’ve-made-it-when-you’ve-got-an-interview-longer-than-your-book sort of way. Jack is a gold friend and a heavy influence and an older brother figure to me, so I wanted to eat with him and talk with him—shit talk, guffaw squak, OK-but-really-let’s-talk—as those of us who know Jack always love to do.
What I found out was that this book is really the chronicle of a poet in transition, a poet growing up on Frank Stanford and tomahawk yawps but wanting to find his way into a calmer place. As Jack says, going from next hill to planting still. Like what happens when the kid wrestling with his brother in the back seat realizes he’s about set to start a family of his own? How is the rambler with the mom and dad who held summer conferences on how to be a good family going to figure out a way to live in so many different selves and skins without crawling out of them?
And in so talking, I think we shined out a little something that’s really useful for young poets. Jack Christian is somebody I look to. When young poets wake up in a town they suddenly realize they can see themselves living in for a long time, they should open up Family System.
Talking with Jack, I realized that Family System is more than a book with a bunch of whammy lines—post-Ashbery managing a rural grocery store, making jokes about how he’s not from around here, jokes that give everybody who is from around here a crush on him. It’s that, but it’s also a personal book. It’s Jack’s book. It’s a fascinating, hilarious book, and the sugar in its tea is a big, bashful, nervous, and very joyful blood.

ON TITLES
Mike Young So the first question I wanted to ask was about the projectness of this book. Family System is what it’s called, and then there’s a line that says, “a family is its own school of painting,” and there are all these names. And a lot of times the names are accompanied by the way you define a person with something that’s elusive, but there’s a lot of swagger to the phrasing. Like, “He’s a real Joe Miller.” And everything fits inside that. So the question is about how you figured out the boundaries of this project.
Jack Christian I guess the first thing is that the name Family System was just about the very last thing that I did. I don’t know if that makes me look foolish or good, but I tried many other titles that I liked, and they didn’t really work. So I spent a long time thinking about how I had all these poems that didn’t go together. And it was amazing to me when I started calling it Family System, how much they cohered to that.
MY They fell in line.
JC Yeah, so that was a really happy accident. In some ways, it was one of these things where it was right in front of my face. You remember this: the first title that I wanted was Friends and Family. Right?
MY Mmm, I think I blocked that out of my head because it was such a bad idea.
JC I always wanted to call it Friends and Family because I thought it was so bad it would be good.
(laughter)
MY You also wanted to call it The New Testament or something?
JC I wanted to call it New Revised Standard Version. And, uh, that didn’t work either.

ON PRAYER, INVOCATION, AND MEDITATION
MY I was going to ask you about the family thing more. And about how having a dad who is a minister has affected your poetry.
JC Sure. Well, I mean, “family systems” theory is a theory that exists. And I knew about it because my dad is a minister and a counselor. I think I grew up with kind of an ambivalent relationship to the Church and to religion in general. On the one hand, I appreciated it, and I didn’t like when people I knew were overly critical or dismissive of it. But on the other hand, I couldn’t really indulge it, especially the details. But, that language—the language of the King James Bible and prayers—must’ve made a profound impression on me. That way of using language, especially using it in a performative kind of way, calling up these different things and whatnot, was important. That ritual you have to do to say the unsayable thing.
MY It’s invocation.
JC Right, that’s what it is. And also the idea of poems as secular prayers. When I was trying to call the book New Revised Standard, I think I was trying to highlight or capitalize on that idea.
MY What do you mean “secular prayer?”
JC Well, I think most of Emily Dickinson’s poems are sort of secular prayers. I find myself quoting her a lot: “These are my letters to the world that never wrote to me.”
MY So is it like the word addressing a silent world? The same way that prayer is addressing a silent God?
JC Yeah, it could be that, but it could be addressing any number of things—God, nature, the world, a relationship. And it could also just be praying that happens outside of the Church and outside of religion in general. A private prayer or a meditation.
MY But prayer sort of wants for something, versus meditation, where you’re just sitting there being aware—
JC That’s right. And that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about life’s purpose being about finding out what’s over the next hill . . . as if I would be okay in the world if I could just find that particular life force I’m seeking, some sort of quest for the Holy Grail or something.
MY And also moving from that feeling to a feeling of like: Wait a minute, I’m okay. And just looking around and being in the moment.
JC Right, so maybe what I’m working on now is more of a meditation.
MY A chronicle of the movement from prayer to meditation. Subtitle.

ON JACK GETTING VOICEMAIL FROM HIS FATHER
JC He doesn’t miss a beat, he goes, “Yo, Jack and Liane, this is Dad/Bill here!” He says this double name because my wife doesn’t call him Dad, but he’s calling for the both of us. So he’s saying his two different names.
MY Do you feel like talking with your dad comes out in the poems? It’s just that you’re so close with your family.
JC Well, I think about their reception, which has been really great.
MY But I mean the genesis of it—
JC Right, yeah, I mean, my dad isn’t just a pastor and a counselor. When I was a kid, my dad and mom actually led several summertime church conferences about family life. So part of it is our closeness, but I guess I’ve always been sort of sensitive to the distinction between the way you talk about things and the way things actually are, whether it’s the difference between doing a job and applying for it, or the difference between going to church and what happens at church.
MY Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
JC In my growing up, there was a definite distinction between public and private behavior. My brother and I were allowed to talk about how much we hated going to church and say the most ridiculous things we could think of, as long as we showed up and acted the part later. So it’d be like, “Mom! I don’t think I believe in God!” And they’d be like, “Hahaha, that’s funny!” Even when I was coming home from college to go to a Christmas Eve service—we’d get to the church, and my dad would say, “OK, alright, I need you to behave.” And I’m twenty-one years old, but at the same time, for the fifteen-minute drive over, my brother and I have been wrestling, and we’ve been saying the most blasphemous things, just to say them. So the truth is somewhere in there. It’s in the performance. It might look a little rough and rowdy, but it’s actually joyous.
MY Just for old times. But that’s natural. You always feel like you’re twelve around your family. That’s probably part of family systems psychology, right?
JC It is. It also gets applied to church. Churches sort of act like a big dysfunctional family. I’ve been reading Hundred Brothers, and I firmly believe Donald Antrim read some family systems theory at some point.
MY Wasn’t it hip at some point?
JC Well, it was systems theory, and family systems is a subset of that. I’m sure some of it goes back to Foucault’s shit about idiosyncrasy. Like trying to explain why, say, some organization seems like a good up-and-coming organization, but their leaders only stay for three years each. Why does that happen? Every time they say, “We’ve gotta get somebody who’s gonna really stay this time.” And they go out and they do it, and they talk to the person, and they get the person to promise they’re gonna stay, and then they leave in three years. I think family systems is good for explaining that.

ON THE POEM “MARIE”
MY “Marie” is sort of like Hundred Brothers. “Marie” is trying to situate everybody so it’s possible to “go out into the warm evening together,” like you say in “Let’s Collaborate.” But didn’t you say someone in your family got mad at you about that poem?
JC Yeah, I used too many family names, so I had to go back and change them. One person wondered why their name wasn’t in it, and another person was worried that a third person would see that their name was. But it was no skin off my back. They’re just names, they’ve always been just names.
MY So was it like that? They were like toys?
JC Well, no. In the first draft, I was just trying to make up any name, but then when that got too tedious, I said: OK, I’m just going to pick names of people who are in my family. Then of course, I started to say things that were somehow related to the family.
MY That were maybe risky?
JC Right. And of course they were exciting to say because they were risky.
MY Private excitement. Or the poem only took off when you stopped thinking of the names as toys and started delving into what was privately exciting and risky to you.
JC I realized as I was writing and trying to choose names out of the air, trying to choose names that didn’t sound too much alike or too this or that, that it was getting too mentally taxing. I was way too conscious of them just being names that I was choosing. And I had this idea that if I just chose family names, they would all be “of a piece”—in that everybody in our family comes from culturally similar circumstances, more or less. Their names are all sort of European WASP names.
MY Although Seth Landman also fits in there. “Poor man’s Seth Landman” is so hilarious.
JC Seth Landman was actually one of the changes. The original name I chose—that guy is actually very rich.
MY It’s funny, it’s not that you’re calling anyone poor, it’s just that the name is too close to the other word. That speaks to a sensitivity of language—
JC Oh, well, a sensitivity to language, but also a sensitivity to the dealings of family.
MY But not everybody thinks that way. What do you think that is?
JC I think it is out of a general familial anxiety about divorce or about keeping up appearances.
MY But to imagine people reading a word just near another word and thinking . . . It’s a worldview in which you have to imagine that people are actually pretty smart, pretty close readers. What is that? Is that a Southern thing, a Christian thing, or—
JC Well, that’s my worldview. It’s about how everything is symbolic. And people are always talking in code. And if you listen to people, they will give themselves away or let you in on secrets as they talk, if you can listen closely enough. And the one thing people don’t do is say what they mean. That’s the same as my suspicion when I’m asked to submit a description of my creative interests. It’s an artful bullshit—it has to be.

ON THE ANXIETY OF THE COLLOQUIAL
MY So I remember at one point during the chapbook, we were trying to come up with other titles, and I wanted you to call it Juke Joints You Sneak To. And that was one of the ones you just rejected outright. Is that like a Southern anxiety thing? Like you don’t want to sound too Southern? Does that come up in your language?
JC Yes, yes. I guess this is my own vanity, but when I first had the book read in a manuscript class—and it was a great class—one of the comments was that it was “down home and folksy.” That burned me up, that idea. Maybe it is, but I didn’t really want it to be, you know? Which is kind of a good tension. I never know how much to indulge Southern colloquialism or not. Because I find it really tempting, but mostly I find the reaction to it to be, I don’t know, sacrosanct or something.
MY What do you mean?
JC I’ll give you an example. There’s part of me that thinks a David Gordon Green film is totally beautiful and amazing, and I love it. And there’s part of it that makes me want to throw up because it’s too much. It’s too sweet. There’s too much sugar. And I was conscious of trying to use that tension.
MY That makes sense. And I feel like in colloquialisms there’s a thing you do—say there’s a phrase like “You best watch out now.” And you don’t need to say “now.” It means the same thing as “You best watch out.” But that “now” is functioning in some way; maybe it’s dampening it down, or maybe it’s emphasizing it or whatever. But what you do is elongate the visible versions of that, or you cut it off, like “He’s of a habit.” You cut it off so it’s dangling and make it more visible. How often do you find yourself wrestling with colloquialisms? Punching them?
JC Yeah, I find myself wrestling with them. I’m really interested in the language of everyday speech. Avoiding things that sound overly heavy or putting them together. Finding poetry in language that doesn’t sound poetic. I don’t know. People don’t accuse Ashbery of being colloquial—partly because of his social caste, and being from New York, and all that stuff.
MY There’s a way in which he does it. It feels like an appropriation, like he’s a maestro.
JC Right, and when I do it, I’m the dude. He’s the maestro, I’m the minstrel.
MY You come in with the sweatpants you bought. It’s not like, “Look at these sweatpants I managed to find in a cute little town.”
JC Right, but who knows. There’s a reason he’s the maestro. (laughter) People think if I say it, that’s how I really talk or something.
MY Why do you think that?
JC Because I’m not as good as him!
(laughter)
MY Just that, though?
JC Well, my poetry is narrative, quasi-confessional, about my feelings or my psychological state. And it’s true to me. I don’t picture myself collaging the rest of the world or something.

ON BEING ENTERTAINING
MY You’re saying that you don’t want it to sound too poetic. Do you worry about that from the confessional angle too? Do you worry about it being too revealing of emotions?
JC I guess I just want poetry to be open, honest, humorous, and well-balanced, but in an exciting, not boring way. So I’m constantly thinking about what’s too much to say personally, what causes a reader to feel like you’ve told them too much. The reaction I’m trying to avoid is someone feeling that they’re being manipulated if they keep listening. Because that’s how I feel when someone does an overshare with me. I guess I aspire to making a relationship that’s a little more democratic than that. Or that the poem stays true to being entertaining, that it gives pleasure—not that it hooks somebody in and makes them feel like they’re watching a car wreck or something.
MY What makes something entertaining?
JC Well, to me, it’s finding a way to bring together all sorts of different stuff in a way that coheres, and is exciting and accessible.
MY Totally, you totally do that in these poems. Do you think of that as the poetic theory of entertainment? Or is that like a larger Jack Christian theory of entertainment?
JC Yeah, maybe a general theory of entertainment. I have this thing I was trying to say—I almost chatted you a line I wanted to work into this interview, so maybe I’ll do that now. Which is this: to call myself a poet, I have to keep looking outside of poetry. I’m not against poetry that talks back to poetry, but I think you have to look for all different kinds of things you can bring into it.

ON WALT WHITMAN AND ACCESSIBILITY
MY Remember when we were doing CTY, and we gave the kids Walt Whitman to yell at the cars? And we had done that ourselves the night before? And one house was angry at us? Even before we’d done it, we were talking about Walt Whitman out in the gazebo. You were saying you’re not unequivocally pro-Whitman, that you’ve had issues with him. But he’s doing exactly what you’re talking about. Do you still have issues with Walt Whitman?
JC That’s funny. I was writing a poem this morning actually. I was going to add a line that said: “The search committee contacted me to say that while they admired my project to become the Walt Whitman of Terror, mine was only one of many strong applications they promised to keep in a pile.” (laughter) I don’t know, I guess I have no beef. I think since we had that conversation I like Walt Whitman more. But I’m not as into sounding like the barbaric yawp as he is. There’s a part of me that’s a little bit more shy and reserved than that, in my poems and in my everyday life too. I like to perform, but I almost need to jump up on the table to do it.
MY That makes sense. In terms of poetry, do you feel more drawn to poetry that’s shyer than you are or less shy than you are? Because I feel like the poetry you like is more shy than the poetry you write.
JC I guess I do. I like sort of being let into a private world. It excites me that in a book like Emily Pettit’s Goat in the Snow it’s accessible and private at the same time. And it makes me work in the correct way, in the way I enjoy.
MY What’s that, the correct way? That it makes you sort of burrow into private meaning?
JC As soon as we say something about this, we’ll think of an exception to it, but: when I read a poem, I want to have some sense of a real multifaceted person on the other side of it. So if I’m engaged in working to see that or understand that, I feel like that’s an honest engagement. The person isn’t playing games with me and they can create the illusion that they would be doing this about the same way even if I wasn’t reading, when probably, obviously, nobody would. But that illusion is huge. I’m into these subtle things of presentation. It really pisses me off when somebody stands up and says they’re going to read a poem that’s not that good.
MY What pisses you off about that?
JC I guess that they’re not taking pride in their work, and particularly, not taking pride in their performance. Also, to get back to being emotionally manipulative, I think that’s emotionally manipulative. Because what do you want from an audience then, besides just a pat on the back at the end of reading your not-very-good poem?
MY What do you want from an audience?
JC I want some good eye contact. (laughter) But I don’t want so much eye contact with the blank stare that gives me bad stage fright. I want their faces to be pleasant and relaxed in the way that I aspire to make my face pleasant and relaxed while I’m up there. (laughter) But not vacant.
MY Do you imagine the reader’s face the same way when they’re not there? If someone’s reading your book, what do you want their face to look like?
JC I don’t know. I don’t really know what people’s faces look like when they’re reading.
MY But if you could imagine it, like if you had an ideal face.
JC I think readings, because they have the whole performance aspect, they don’t quite add up to reading it on the page. I guess I think people are more honest in their responses when they read it on the page. And if they’re not into it, they’re going to put it down. But there’s something that annoys me—and I can’t quite put my finger on what this is—about anybody in poetry apologizing for themselves, or making little of it. I’ve seen very successful, fully-employed, many-book poets do this a lot. Of course, you can go the other way too and make it seem like the end-all be-all of everything.
MY What if someone goes up at a reading and says, “This poem is great, guys.” Would that annoy you more or less than someone saying, “I dunno, this poem isn’t very good, but I’m going to read it anyway.”
JC There’s a chance when they say it’s great that it will actually be great. It’s like when your basketball team is down by twenty with a few minutes left. You could turn the TV off and probably save an hour of your day, or you could stick around and maybe watch the best comeback of the season. So there’s an opportunity that creates. When someone says it’s not very good, maybe once or twice I’ve been like, “No, you’re wrong!” But most of the time they’re right.

ON GUESSING WRONG
MY I remember you telling me there were some poems you wrote after you realized the shape of the book. And I think that makes sense. I don’t think those are inherently lesser poems because they were written toward a sense of utility. So what did that feel like? I have some guesses about which poems were written for that.
JC I’d be interested to hear your guesses.
MY Well, “Widespread Plausible.” That’s one I’d guess was written later.
JC No, not really. “Widespread Plausible” was written in the spring . . . of 2008?
MY Really? Wow.
JC But in a way I could see why you would say that because it was written with “Gothic People’s Institute,” “An Ape,” and “A Tree”—the one with “I was shaking my fist.” But it was sort of the last in a line. The last in that series that got scattered through the book.
MY Yeah, there’s stuff in it that feels like you are consciously recognizing some of what you do, like “of a thing to know.” Oh, and “who do this of our overflowance.” Kind of quasi-Biblical and awkward, funny misappropriations. And earlier, “We never see it and are only about to.” You said that you’d written that in the last of a line, so were you recognizing some of what you were doing and going with it?
JC I think it was more like I had eight pages of notes, and I was gonna be damned if I didn’t get at least a couple poems out of it.
MY So you were sort of under a spell?
JC Right. I guess because that’s the way I do it a lot. I end up with these big document files that are multiple pages long and have lots of different fits and starts. Then I start looking back at it to see what I can find and start pulling poems out of it. That’s one way I work. Sometimes I just sit down and write a draft of a poem and that’s it.
MY “Poem of My Hope” was a one-drafter, right?
JC Pretty much.

POEM OF MY HOPE
This month, Sarah is down and frequent in the backyard.
We make a point of eating together.
She’s annoyed I called Connecticut
a dead sea-creature, mad I said her big cousin
is easier than making babies
and her children should be terrified
or else content to house their unknown hostility
until it localizes as stomach cancer.
What’s crazy is how a family is its own school of painting,
how in mine the men carve the hedges
and the women carver their dresses
and when they get together their favorite color is skin.
It’s obvious that these are white houses and those are white rocks
and there is the graveyard we enjoy
because it comforts us, because it hides death
but insists death is not hidden from us
and one day we’ll lie around each other.
Sarah, you say you think about this. So then, consider me
in the act of bringing a thing over to you.
I’m waiting now by the row that fronts our street,
where I’m sure this is the light we can practice with.
And that man in the next lot, he is our uncle, who grew tall,
and has stood for the decade since he gave up the church
and became the hoop at the end of the driveway.

ON PRAISING/FUCKING THE IMAGINATION
JC The one that I wrote conscious of what I was doing was “Organization Is Also a Making.” That one is an exercise in not believing all the shit I believe. Like all the poems are sort of praising the imagination. That poem, to me, is sort of saying fuck the imagination. “A river joins the ocean but not to change it.” Sort of like, “What’s all this worth, anyway?” I don’t know—I think it’s the most nihilistic poem I ever wrote.
MY It’s very short. You didn’t get very far in your nihilism.
JC No, I didn’t. (laughter)
MY That’s interesting—so all the poems you think of as praising the imagination. So, A) what does that mean, and B) why did you feel the conscious need, when you recognized that, to fuck with it or tweak the nose of it?
JC Well, it’s just sort of like a natural correction, you know? I have no qualms about psychologizing myself. That’s one of my favorite pastimes. So I would say, with that poem, that there were all these things I believed through about age twenty-seven—maybe twenty-nine, I don’t know, maybe even thirty—but I really sort of began to strongly question. How far had they gotten me, these beliefs? And what of it was just being easy and quaint and comfortable? What of it was really important to my person? So I really started to challenge my previous enthusiasms, like reverence for nature. Belief in some warm, loving God. Belief in romantic love. So it’s been very nice, in a way, to come out around the other side of that. In a way, it was like I previously had this belief in a way things should be. A lot of it was realizing that, insofar as I suffered existentially, it was related to my expectations being out of whack. So I eventually came back around to where I could call a mountain ugly. But I don’t think much in Family System calls a mountain ugly. Mostly they’re majestic in there.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL JACK CHRISTIAN NOUN PHRASE
MY I feel like the quintessential Jack Christian noun phrase is “side mud.” It’s in that poem—
(Here Jack insists he has never used the phrase “side mud,” and Mike frantically searches all the poems for it.)
MY It’s in a poem that’s on the right side. This one here has blood and dust in it again. You have a lot of blood. When was “A Hill” written?
JC That one was written in spring 2009.
MY How far down do you remember them? Do you remember circumstance or just time?
JC Well, for my thesis defense, they make you write something critical about it, like an introduction. And for mine, I really didn’t want to do it, so I wrote this list of the circumstances of each poem—what I was reading and what I was thinking about. And my thesis committee was like, “This is ridiculous. There’s no way you remember all that.” One of them even said, “If you do, you shouldn’t.” But I did. I fucking knew.
MY Why did you remember?
JC I think it’s because I write a lot in October and March. I have a very hard time writing in the dead of winter and middle of summer. But I still believe in inspiration. Usually I write a poem when I feel like writing a poem. So by doing that, a lot of times I can remember the ideas that got me started writing the poem. I remember those being anchored to a time and place, and to what I was reading.
MY So like biography and bibliography, as Peter Gizzi would say?
JC That’s right. But I was always frustrated if I started at that place and that turned out to be it. There was always a feeling that there was more behind it or more connections to make somehow, which is the whole point of even writing the poem—to figure it out.
MY So I finally found “side mud.” It’s in “Hell is Fire and Heaven is Cake.”
JC Mm, of course! That’s the oldest poem in the book.
MY It’s sort of an index to the rest of them in a way.
JC That’s my parents’ favorite poem.
MY That’s the one where the “I” is the most adventuresome, real swashbuckling. So I feel like “side mud” is the quintessential noun phrase and “shimmy” is the quintessential Jack Christian verb.
JC That was the old me. I like that stuff because it’s surprising, but somewhere along the way I became more suspicious of swashbuckling so much. I started to ask the question you can’t ask of your swashbuckling, which is: why am I swashbuckling? (laughter)
MY You can’t really ask your swashbuckling anything. Otherwise it evaporates.
JC I wanted to find something different for the “I” to do. Rather than be this bold figure with the cuffs of his pants pulled up. Because it bothers me a lot when I read something like that and it seems too easy. A lot of it came from my reading of Frank Stanford, coming full circle with him. When I first read it, I was so excited by it, and I still love it, but I had to realize that he’s writing barely post-adolescent poetry—in a genius way, but that’s what it is. And I didn’t want to be forever in post-adolescence. I wanted to grow up.

ON THE FUTURE OF JACK’S WRITING
MY So, you’ve been moving in a prose direction, writing about your immediate family life. Is that what you find yourself doing right now? Just looking out and seeing what’s immediately around you?
JC Yeah, what I can see into it.
MY Because your current project, The Apartment on Market Street
JC Right, it’s full of that kind of stuff. But I’ve moved onto the next thing. I want to write something called—this is going to guarantee it’s not going to be called this—but I want to write something called Fifty Obsessions. And I want to put the “Ode to Anxiety” poem in it. The idea is about obsession as a process. I don’t know, do you experience this? When my writing is going good, I become totally obsessed with it, and huge amounts of time can pass without my realizing. Just totally locked into it. So it’s almost like fifty examples of writing like that.
MY The poems in Family System are also reflections of processes, but they’re not as visible. Celebrations of whirling.
JC So I guess the only difference would be my sense that I have some better idea of what I’m doing. I feel like the poems in Family System are about me teaching myself to write poems.
MY A lot of times it feels like you sort of have this stuff that’s on fire, and you’re throwing it back and forth, and you throw it in the pan to cool it down, and you’re yelling as you’re throwing it, and then it comes back out of the pan. It’s fried and it has all your yelling sticking out of it, and then you shave that down to sharp edges.
JC Yeah, that’s about right, I think that’s good. And implicit in that process is cutting what you don’t know how to work with. I started to realize a lot of my cuts and edits, some of them at least, were for convenience’s sake—
MY Mmm, you don’t want it to spin off—
JC Right, so now I’m excited to work with a lot of the stuff I didn’t know how to work with before. I guess I’m maybe weirdly interested in making poems out of things that you shouldn’t be able to make poems out of. I keep thinking about making a movie from scraps of language—the scraps off the cutting room floor, but those that are evocative. Sideways glances or skewed phrases.
Also I really admire a lot of James Tate’s work. I’m always tempted to take a James Tate two-page poem and make it a ten-line poem, but it’s brilliant that he doesn’t do that. So I’m trying to understand what it is that I could do to allow a poem to breathe more. Somebody else with that quality is Barry Hannah. Especially in, uh, what’s the one that’s really just his diary? Is it Boomerang?
MY That’s the one where he’s sort of minimal on the linguistic pyrotechnics.
JC But that’s the thing, I find the subtle linguistic pyrotechnics sort of endlessly exciting. Even though he’s talking about playing in a band in the Humane Society, the sentences are still amazing—
MY But they’re relaxed.
JC That’s the thing, I’m trying to learn how to relax.
MY Is marriage counseling helping that?
(laughter)
JC I don’t feel as doubtful as I used to.
MY Doubt, just general? Or specific doubt?
JC Doubt about who I am and what I’m going to do.
MY Which makes sense because a lot of poems in Family System are like: “Here’s who I think I am, and here’s what I think I’m going to do.” And that’s what is sort of Whitmany about them. I mean, Whitman is like “I’m everybody,” but these poems are not that. They say, “I am these specific things” or “Here’s what everybody else is.” Like “He’s a real Joe Miller” or “she’s the ice queen.” And they’re like, “Here I am, here they are, here’s what we’re going to do.” And “this is the evening I thought we’d all ride into together,” though realizing that it’s not going to happen.
JC It’s all conjecture.
MY Oh, conjecture is a great word for it. Conjecturing.
JC It all has an implicit “if” hanging over it.
MY It’s an “if,” but there’s also a real “How about that.” I mean, there is: “If it storms, I’ll sit on the beach.” But it’s also: “You could see where to go by the patterns of branches.” That’s really definitive. “There’s a baseball game. There’s a pitch in baseball that is fast as hell.”
JC Well, it’s also trying to be self-soothing, you know? Out of feeling very uncertain, I wanted to write poems that felt more certain, but fraught. I don’t know the answer to anything, so I’ll try to write something really solid.
MY Like the last poem, the “Gothic Peoples Institute”—all these questions without question marks. It ends uncertain.

THE BEGINNING OF GOTHIC PEOPLES INSTITUTE
And were you cold last night. And in dreams somewhat amphibian.
Was it sometimes a coldfront. What do the gestures mean
if they aren’t the same as other gestures.
What when their hands have gotten past each other.

ON PRIVACY AND EXCITEMENT
JC That’s right, that is one where I’m entertaining the notion of not making anything certain. But it’s interesting you say, “questions without question marks.” Because I really just took the question marks out. I felt tired of looking at them. (laughter) Too many damn question marks.
MY Did they make you anxious?
JC Oh yeah. At that point they made me hugely anxious. It’s also one I never showed anyone because I could never get my head around what it was doing. And it sort of references that: “Is that exciting to hear about, or just kind of some private thoughts?” I think that’s how I felt about the poem the whole time.
MY What do you think is the relation between excitement and privacy? Because it seems like you’re drawing the reader into the intensity of private excitement. I remember on your thirtieth birthday, when you made that table with that wood you found in Cheney’s barn, and then there was that picture of you pouring the wine on the candle? You can see the wine coming out in the picture, and that’s what makes it so funny. It looks like the coolest party—and it was—but it’s also because you made a table specifically for that party. It’s like when you read out loud, you seem very aware that you’re in a public space, sort of holding yourself back a little bit. You’re less gregarious—you’d be way wackier around a table than you would on stage. And as gregarious as the poems are, they also feel private and interior too.
JC To be fair, we didn’t exactly make the table. We, with much difficulty, brought a very large old picnic table inside, and then did some work on it.
But, to answer your question, I don’t know what that is. That tension exists in the poems and exists in my life. I have similar worry with poems that I have while comporting myself in public. I worry about being domineering. I know there’s part of me that could never shut up, that can be a total bull in a china shop. So then becoming conscious of it, I go way over to the other side. The same thing with the poems—the whole swashbuckler thing. I can only figure out how to make it allow for a particular tune or syntax.
MY Like all major key. Or like fiddles, a lot of fiddles. - bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/7260


The Next Big Thing
Feb. 20, 2013
Last week, the excellent Jordan Stempleman tagged me for the interview project, “The Next Big Thing,” that is currently circulating social media. The aim is for writers to answer a list of questions about their recent or forthcoming work, post it, then tag fellow writers to do the same. Jordan gave a preview of his latest manuscript Wallop
In November, my first book of poems, Family System was published by the Center for Literary Publishing. Today, I’m glad for the chance to discuss a manuscript I just finished.

What is the working title of the book?
The Apartment on Market Street
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Due to a confluence of cultural forces I cannot fully explain, I arrived at a point in my life where I had read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street more times than any other book ever (like 12 times). This is because I teach creative writing to “gifted and talented” teenagers during the summer and I find it nearly impossible not to teach The House on Mango Street. (Although a new rival is Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.)
Reflecting on this, I realized I love The House on Mango Street, and I set out to do my own re-dux about a graduate school couple fixing to commit matrimony in an affluent town in Western New England.
What genre does the book fall under?
Like The House on Mango Street, The Apartment on Market Street consists mostly of prose vignettes.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Paul Rudd and Rashida Jones
What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?
Judd Apatow for the literary set.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I wrote the first draft during the year I was engaged to be married (2010) and during the year after that (2011).
Who or what inspired you to write the book?
In the grandiose way inspiration happens, and in addition to what I just said about The House on Mango Street, I wanted to write a prequel to Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter.
Also, the experience of becoming a Post-Emerging-Adult.
What else about this book might pique a reader’s interest?
What continually floors me is the realization that love, especially long-love, is not ephemeral but intentional, and that this idea is so crazily complicated by things like gender norms, family histories, the institution of marriage, the wedding industry, consumer capitalism, etc. The book’s about this dude and his girlfriend in the sway of all that.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’ve just completed the manuscript. What I need are a few good readers (who don’t already know me or where I live, or who have forgotten these things). If anybody’s feeling generous enough to give this a read would you drop me a line? (williamjacksonchristian@gmail.com)
 

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