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There Is no Room in Love for Violence

February 2, 2013 by · 1 comment

Christopher McCurry interviews author Jeremy Paden

Jeremy Paden

Tell us about yourself and your soon to be released book Broken Tulips (Accents Publishing 2013).

I was born in Milan, Italy, where my dad was studying medicine. But I was raised in the southern U.S. (Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana) and in Central America and the Caribbean (Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic). It’s a complicated story, and some of it I’ve told over at the blog of a friend of mine.

The poems that comprise Broken Tulips were mostly written during the spring of 2011. My initial thought was to write a series of paired poems that chronicled a failed relationship where every other poem was a response to the previous one. The only remaining evidence of this original idea is the Abelard and Heloise pair.

A handful of poems, though, were written before and even fewer after. Most notably of these, the title poem was written six or seven years ago and has gone through more edits than I even care to admit. Another poem that was written before was the long middle poem “The Psalms of Michal.”

I could tell you more about the book, but then we’d devolve into one of those Faulknerian games where whatever I might say about the collection will be taken as truth—then again, it might very well be; I’ve never been the inveterate liar that the good Mr. William was accused of being. Still, whatever I might say about the collection is what I might say. It’s one reading of a text by a flawed reader, even if the text is mine.

Jeremy Paden - Broken Tulips

For the epigraph of your book you quote Nicholson Baker who says, “Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing.” What is the relationship of this epigraph to the rest of this book or how you view poetry in general?

In the summer of 2010 I read Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a wonderful and funny novel about poetry filled with witticisms like the one taken for the epigraph. Like all good aphorisms it makes immediate and intuitive sense. At the same time, though, like any such phrase if applied too rigorously or believed too fervently whatever truth it might contain becomes banal and a parody of itself.

So, yes, poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing. But it is also more than that and, in fact, many times it’s not that at all. That is to say, exceptions can, and should, be taken with controlled, refinement, and sobbing. Immediately to mind leap the funny poetry of X. J. Kennedy or Jennifer Michael Hecht, or the praise poems of Kelly Norman Ellis or Bianca Spriggs, and these are not about sobbing. Not that they all don’t cry a little bit, sometimes. We all do.

Though I tend toward melancholy—it is constitutive of my being, in my very genetic code,, if my parents are to be believed—the epigraph was chosen more because it fit the book than because of whatever light it might cast on my thinking about poetry.

Now that I’ve said that, I feel it’s imperative to recite an epigraph from Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Black Book, “Never use epigraphs; they kill the mystery of the work!”

Your poems seem to invoke the complicated history of love in the context of a modern love. What do you think our stories, myths, religious beliefs and observations of nature, have to teach us about love?

Humans tell stories and through the telling of stories we try to understand who we are and what our purpose is. As we tell stories we create metaphors in an attempt to describe and explain the world around us. We compare and contrast and create similes. Aristotle said that the supreme human activity is logos, or the word. Hans Georg Gadamer explains this as, “To [humans] alone is the logos given… so that they can make manifest to each other what is useful and harmful, and therefore also what is right and wrong.”

So, yes, our stories and myths and theologies, etc. have things to teach us. But, it is more complicated than simply the affirmation that they have lessons that we transcribe. We are brought up and are given a vocabulary. That is, we are born into a world of stories and are told them and are told variations of them. In fact, most of us are given several vocabularies. And from these we go about building our own world, telling our own stories.

Writing also functions like this, only more overtly. Writing is born from reading; there is no other way to learn the craft. But if on the one hand, writing is born from writing and contains the echoes of previous stories and myths, writing has also always turned to nature to create new images and find new metaphors. It is not that the migrations of whales across the vast ocean, always returning to the same places to mate and calve has anything to teach us, it is that we create these connections and associations. We turn these into lessons.

Though I teach Spanish and the broad the scope of Latin American literature, my specialty is in Colonial Latin America. So, I’ve read a lot of 15th, 16th, and 17th century European and Spanish American poetry. Also, I grew up the son of Christian missionaries. Tese stories, myths, etc. are part of my universe, part of how I understand the world, and they comprise the vocabulary I use to describe the world.

But, as Borges shows in his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote,” even if we try our hardest not to update these stories, they are changed simply by the accident of time. And, of course, as artists we want to say things in new ways, want to tell these same old stories of love found and lost and forgotten and remembered in such a way that makes them new.

Apart from being a complex and beautiful poem, “The Psalms of Michal: A Broken Crown,” introduces violence into the narrative arc of the book. In your opinion, what is violence’s role in love, if any?

Along with the writer of the epistle of 1st John, I think, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” Though the author speaks of fear not violence, I think there is no room in love for violence. Real love casts this out too. Yet love and violence are much too often tragically bound up the one with the other.

Though I say this and immediately and categorically deny any role for violence in love, the world of Broken Tulips is violent: both the private world of the lovers and the backdrop against which the poems are set. We live in a violent world. We live in a world where lovers are often not in sync, where confusion and hurt are a daily part of our relationships, romantic or otherwise, and love, and mercy, and forgiveness are needed by all. In such a world violence can take many forms. And none of us are non-violent.

In the case of “The Psalms of Michal,” the story is a retelling of the struggle for power between David and King Saul. It’s told in the voice of Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s first wife. David’s court was the original soap opera: double crossings, incest, domestic violence, betrayal, adultery, all are part of this family.

Though the story of David and Bathsheba is better known, Michal’s is just as tragic, if not more. The daughter of the king finds herself given to the most coveted young man only to then be caught between father and husband. Then, after her father is killed in battle, after David takes her back into his house (Saul had given her to another man when the fighting between the two had intensified), David shuns her. The story is about power and male ego and possession and the violence of men against women.

But these are not the stories we tell of those whom hold up as exemplars. Too often we let shame or power silence us from denouncing this kind of atrocious male behavior. But how can we? As Rebecca Solnit has recently written, there is “a pattern of violence against women that’s broad and deep and horrific and incessantly overlooked.”

That said, the poem addresses all of that obliquely. It tries to tell the story of David and Michal from Michal’s point of view.

One poem, “Conversing with an Older Poet,” speaks about being a writer in a relationship. How does that further complicate love?

I do think that there are difficulties in being in a relationship with a writer. Not the least of which is that the unsuspecting person who fell in love with the flatterer one day wakes up and realizes they are now emotionally bound to a gossip and an inveterate fabulist and falsifier. This is, I think, especially the case with those genres that are taken to be confessionalist and autobiographical in nature. Lyrical poetry, whether autobiographical or not, is by its very nature confessional. Negotiating the relationship through the falsehoods and half-truths that are scattered throughout the writings of one’s partner is one complication.

But, there is another difficulty which this poem is trying to get at. Namely, that of time. To write, one must have made time to read and then make time again to write. There is no other way. For many of us, myself included, the kind of reading that helps hone one’s craft is not part of our day-job, and neither is writing. Time must be made for both. And, there is nothing more inefficient than drafting and redrafting a poem. Yet time must also be given and given freely to one’s partner and dependents, should one have them. That conflict, to me, at least at the moment, is one of the greatest. And, in fact, it’s probably the most overtly autobiographical poem of the book.

What or who inspires you to continue writing?

Rilke, in the first of his Letters to a Young Poet, has that rather dramatic passage where he is counseling his correspondent to pay no attention to outward things, instead to look inward, and “ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?… And if this should be affirmative… then build your life according to this necessity.”

I remember my undergraduate professor had tacked that passage to his door. At the time I thought it deeply true and, in fact, it almost scared me out of writing. Now I think it more cute than anything else. Not that there isn’t any truth to it, but I think of this bit of advice much in the same way I do apothegms.

They have a kernel of truth, but have in themselves the seeds of their own undoing. But, what is true, at least at the moment, is this need to write. I, like so many others, get itchy and antsy and irritable if I go long periods without writing. I also find that writing lets me stay in the moment, that if I’m not writing on a consistent basis I’m distracted.

How does a poem normally begin for you?

There is no normal. Sometimes it comes as a flash, not the entire poem, but a line or two. The worst is when I’m driving or with other people at a party and I’ve got no way to write the phrase down. Sometimes the words come when chopping vegetables and preparing dinner… which is decidedly better because I can chop and work out some lines while working. But that really is only sometimes.

Normally a poem begins with me sitting down and writing. It’s rather a banal and a decidedly unromantic notion. I will, at times, have a vague idea of what I want to write about, a phrase, an image, an idea, an emotion. Once I get around to writing, though, I have always found to be true E. L. Doctorow’s statement “writing is like driving at night in the fog.

You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I don’t know what or how I am going to say anything until I’ve written it, and then rewritten it. Sometimes I will write an entire poem in one sitting. Sometimes I will proceed painfully through the poem adding a line here and taking one out there and over a period of days a poem will get written, unless it peters out.

Much of the time, I’ll get so excited about having written a poem that I will breathlessly send it to friends, only to find out that I should’ve waited two more proofreads.

You are a member of the Affrilachian Poets, could you tell us a little about that?

The first rule of the Affrilachian Poets, you don’t talk about the Affrilachian Poets. They know people who know people who put the hurt on people who talk. Joking aside, what is there to say about such a generous and kind group of people? I am astonished by their zeal and their love of poetry and how seriously they take the call to teach others the art of self-expression. A couple of years ago one of the members invited me to join and the rest of them looked kindly upon a mossless stone like myself and the rest is history.

The Affrilachian Poets are a multicultural group that includes poets living and writing in the larger region of Appalachia—all 13 states. The majority of its members are of African descent, though not exclusively. I myself have both Native American and Latino blood, but I am white. What does this mean?

My great-great grandmother on my father’s side is full-blooded Cherokee, registered on the Dawes Roll, and her husband was also Cherokee, though he is registered as mixed. You can track their movement in the census data through the 1800s from Virginia and eastern Tennessee into Alabama, Arkansas and finally Oklahoma. (Yes, I realize everyone from Johnny Cash to Elizabeth Warren claims Cherokee heritage.)

But, my ancestors left the reservation and went down into West Texas to become cotton farmers. And, also, to become white. On my mother’s side, my grandmother is Puerto Rican. (Which, it should be remembered, being Latino is not a one-size fits all experience anyway. The Cuban immigrant, the Chicano who has always lived in the Southwest, the Central American immigrant and migrant worker, the upper-middle class Chilean refugee, these are all radically different experiences that are not easily collapsed into one by the homogenizing narrative of U.S. racial politics.)

My mother, though born in Aguadilla was raised in Texas by a mother who refused to speak Spanish to her children and who insisted that they not play outside in the summer, lest they, with their black hair, get too dark. Thus, she, despite having an exotic, island girl mother, was raised as white. All of this to say, my family history is one of passing. I, like my siblings and cousins, have benefited from this ethnic and cultural whitening. I am white. To admit this is not to turn my back on my Cherokee or Puerto Rican heritage.

It is instead an admission that I enjoy all the privileges of being white. Namely, those who do not know me presume me to be white and give me the benefit of the doubt. Of course, it is unfair to cast this story as one where others simply bestow upon me these privileges. I recognize the advantages I’ve been given by my ancestor’s passing. To admit that I am white, to claim white on census data, in my case is not an instance of passing, not anymore. Instead, it is to admit that I was raised white.

To claim anything else would dishonest. To presume that I could make strong claims to either heritage, regardless of bloodlines, would, I think betray my Native and Puerto Rican brothers and sisters who have not been given the same advantages that I have. One more strangeness, though, is part of my biography and part of how I understand the world.

I think this is what the Affrilachian Poets saw in me. I was not raised in the U.S., instead I grew up in the global south. I grew up in countries that have a long history of colonization by Europe and the U.S.. This too is part of who I am and how I understand the world. And, though this might not fully come out in Broken Tulips, it is part of what I write about, part of what connects my work to the work of the Affrilachian Poets.

Do you currently have any projects that you are working on that we can look forward to?

Oh, there are several manuscripts or versions of manuscripts languishing away on my hard-drive. Some of these have been dressed up in a shaving basin, mounted on a steed, and sent out into the world. All have returned and are recuperating possibly to be sent out again. What else is there to say? I’ve still got cards up my sleeves but so far none of them have been aces. Poems from one such project can be found here. Poems from another, here. Poems from a third, here.

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