Jerry Williams was recently featured on Poet Hound for his anthology of poems titled It's Not You, It's Me: The Poetry of Breakup, published by The Overlook Press, and I have just finished reading a book of his own poems titled Admission, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press.
1. Let's start with your anthology. You have an introduction that provides quite a few painful and embarrassing details about your relationships. What made you decide to include some of those more intense moments in your introduction?
A1: First of all, Paula, I would like to thank you for inviting me on your wonderful blog and for all the critical attention and support you've given both my books. So thank you for that. Now, when I first put the anthology together, I had written a mere two-page introduction because I felt that I should get out of the way of the text. Then my agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, who had managed, amazingly, to sell the anthology to a commercial house, suggested that I take the opportunity to go into more depth about my relationship history, to be funny and vulnerable and introduce myself to other editors as a future nonfiction writer. That introduction turned out to be some of the most difficult writing I've ever done and Jenni encouraged me the whole way. I realized what I needed to do. I had it all in my head. I wanted to let readers know that I'd done time in the breakup trenches and that the selection of poems came out of that war and out of my own particular aesthetic: poems of disenfranchisement and despair; exuberance; scorn; hyperbole; bold and humorous poems; risky, antagonistic, and ironic poems; poems that transform or level the reader; investigative poems, hard-hitting poems; ironic, courageous, morally questionable poems; darkly tender, high-stakes, sardonic narrative-lyric hybrids grounded in accessibility. Maybe a certain amount of setting the record straight went into that introduction—admitting where I had wronged other people and accounting for the pain other people had caused me. In general, I cannot write discreetly. In fact, the un-used two-page introduction made its way into Admission as a prose poem called "Exegesis of a Hard Case." Waste not, want not, as they say.
2. How did the idea of putting together this anthology come to fruition?
A2: Subconsciously, I must have been carrying the idea around for the last twenty years. Severe breakups nearly put me in the hospital, and during the recovery period a poem here and there is about all I can handle reading, but those few pieces work like momentary intravenous glee. I guess I've kept a mental list. When the concept of an anthology moved to the front of my brain I began looking through the poetry collections in my studio apartment in Manhattan, writing down titles and authors and dog-earing pages. I probably found half the poems for the anthology right there in my apartment. Then I took the 6 train down to Poets House and started in on their books. Rules entered into the picture. I intended for every poet in the book to still be living, and I tried to cast as wide a relationship-situation net as possible. I planned on putting together a serious anthology of poetry, a self-hurt book that would transform itself into a self-help book through sheer power and genuineness. That's what I hoped for anyway.
3. Did this collection of poems provide a sense of catharsis for you or did you end up reliving your more painful experiences of past relationships?
A3: I would say a little of both. I remember when I got a first draft together—with the sections and everything—I had typed every single poem into one document, and I brought the pages up to the gym, climbed onto the elliptical trainer, and began the proofreading process. After about half an hour I realized I was simultaneously crying and fake cross-country skiing, so I switched to Entertainment Weekly for the rest of the workout. During my relationship history, all told, I must have spent months and months, post-breakup, virtually paralyzed by psychic pain. Writing that introduction and editing It's Not You, It's Me helped pay off some of the shameful debt of time I owed myself. I made moths out of mothballs. The poems in the anthology combine confession and testimony in such a way that proves that language can repair the damage of trauma. And, coincidentally, some of my favorite poems on earth are breakup and divorce poems.
4. For the readers of this interview, you can use the sidebar on the blog to click on the week of 2/7 — 2/14 to go back to Feb. 9th to find several full-length poems from the anthology and get an idea of the range of emotions covered by this collection. I especially like Patricia Smith's poem about having an affair and Michael Ryan's poem "Pure Loneliness." Mr. Williams, can you talk a little about how you picked such a wide variety of poems for this collection that touch on so many different kinds of relationships and their emotions?
A4: I started out with a core group of poems and authors and, as I mentioned before, I like a certain kind of poem. At Poets House I plowed through the books of writers I loved or thought I might love. The poems accrued, and I kept my eyes open for dramatic situations I had not yet encountered: domestic violence, parents' divorces, affairs, vacation breakups, telephone calls, friends' divorces, what to wear to court, dividing up the pets, coming to terms with aloneness, anything. I felt like Noah hauling every possible species of breakup poem onto an ark and waiting for the flood of rejection. I tried not to cover the same territory more than a few times and, in a way, the poems came to me. I did not put in any extra time widening that net. Wonderful breakup and divorce poems are everywhere. All I had to do was not let the poems repeat themselves too often.
5. Is there anything about this collection of poems that surprised you once you had it completed? Any surprising response you felt in yourself or reactions from other people you hadn't expected?
A5: I got to know the work of poets I'd never read before. Alan Shapiro's poems surprised me. I had no idea he was so great and that he'd written so many great divorce poems in particular. Patricia Smith gave me four unpublished poems for the anthology, and I was not as familiar with her work as I should have been. I liked the way Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert's poems spoke to one another in the text. Stephen Berg's poems really knocked the wind out of me. I started with a very tiny budget and thanks to the generosity of the poets and presses, I got most of the permission fees waived or reduced. And without W.W. Norton's gift of Most Favored Nations status, the book would not exist. As it stands, I never had to remove a single poem for financial reasons. It's Not You, It's Me turned out exactly the way I wanted it to turn out. No one up or down the chain of command enforced even the smallest change that didn't improve the text. And The Overlook Press showed great courage in publishing a book that nearly every other publishing house in America had passed up because it looked too depressing. Then the anthology sold far more copies than anyone thought possible. That's surprising.
6. Did putting this collection together help you in putting together your own collection of poems for the future?
A6: With the anthology I had already decided on three sections that would present breakup poems in a more or less linear fashion: One Foot Out the Door, In the Middle of the Storm, and the Aftermath. Every poem fit pretty snugly into one of these three categories. I suppose I carried the idea of a three-section structure into Admission. However, organizing my own collection seemed a lot more instinctual. On the surface, I tried not to put poems too near to one another if they dealt with similar subjects or featured similar diction. I thought about mood a lot when I put Admission together. Many of my poems are pretty despairing, so I sometimes interrupt that flow with the humorous or political. I progressed somewhat chronologically with regards to when the poems themselves were written. Also, in Admission, I believe the narrator is looking for something or someone and by the end he finds what he is looking for.
7. For your collection of poems, Admission, you've divided the book into sections labeled by colors: Gray, Black, and Red. How do these colors relate to the poems you've placed within them as a section and why did you choose the names of colors as headings?
A7: This question actually made me consider some concepts that I hadn't put very much willful thought into. Initially, I associated each section with a color because that particular color appeared at least once in the poems of that section. Also, I wanted to remind myself that colors generally associated with pessimistic moods are indeed vibrant colors. After doing a little research, I discovered that the color labels for each section were more appropriate than I could have imagined. Gray connotes sadness, timelessness, and loss and inspires unsettling feelings of expectancy. The poems in the first section are gray. Black connotes remorse, anger, fear, power and inspires feelings of restless emptiness but also potential and possibility. The poems in the second section are black. Red connotes energy, aggression, action, blood and inspires a sense of protection from fears and anxiety. The poems in the third section are definitely red. So what I've gone and done is turned myself into a fake psychic and sneaked in a happy ending.
8. I'd like to select a poem from each section and display the poem in its entirety if you don't mind. For section one, Gray, your opening poem, "Unadorned," struck me because it has so many oddities as to what you've done for the other person. Who is the other person and how did you come up with lines like "I gave up skin for you" and "I survived—for you—a major stork attack…"? I'm also curious about the line where you might have gone for the knife drawer, taking out all the wheelchairs, and Zombification, if it wasn't for this other person. What was going on in your life and/or in your mind when you wrote this poem?
Here is the poem in its entirety:
I let a dog in the park lick my face for you.
I pretended not to know the murder rate in Denmark for you.
I've tried to stay ugly for you.
I turned myself into an oil field, switched on klieg lights
for you, and let Texaco start drilling.
I never thought about the future for you or else I thought about it
in terms that only you could understand,
though we had never actually met.
I worked in a cardboard box factory for you.
I gave up skin for you.
Whenever love metastasized, I ran over it with my lawnmower
I wrote "Stairway to Heaven" for you.
I did the whole Reverend Dimmesdale thing for you.
For you, I tramped around town smelling old books and thinking
of better days.
If it weren't for you I might have thrown open the door to any
number of empty apartments and gone straight
for the knife drawer.
I quit the team for you, I quit the band for you.
I survived—for you—a major stork attack at the free clinic.
I romanticized the Russian Revolution for you.
All that weight and all those miles for you.
For ages, I drove really shitty cars for you, cars with bald tires, cars
that burned a quart of Quaker State a day,
cars with no reverse.
I passed the Clean Hair Act of 1992 for you.
I took the pill for you.
I took my pulse pass/fail for you.
I took all the wheelchairs out of this poem for you.
I scrutinized the maps of various principalities and prowled around
the depths of their free print media,
scavenging underground for you.
I've stood at the podium and knelt at the peephole for you.
One night I camped out on the sidewalk to protest against
something for you—I can't remember what it was—
but I'm sure nothing was ever done.
I had my juvenile record expunged for you.
I secretly hoarded food for you.
For you, I've spent fifteen of the last twenty-two Christmases alone
on the couch with The Catcher In The Rye.
For you, I've suffered bouts of Pernicious Cubicle Zombification
that no amount of Prison Movie Therapy could cure.
I fell this far without you for you.
Anyone goodhearted or wounded enough to fill in for you got
bombarded with encrypted code left over
from the War of Adolescence which, by the way—
totally based on false intelligence.
For you to believe a word I'm saying, you have to admit that when
my hand floated palely away, I forgot
every single breast I've ever touched.
This is me trying to settle down for you.
This is me putting my bullhorn and my guillotine
in the attic for you.
I'm turning gray for you.
So, please, tell me
when will you be born?
A8: Paula, thank you so much for reproducing these poems on your site. They're three of my favorites. In answer to your question, "Unadorned" is a love poem written to a person the narrator has not (yet) met, but hopes to. The technique I've used here is called, in poetic terms, apostrophe: direct address to someone or something not present. Additionally, the "you" might encompass a range of phenomena: a spiritual force, huge life-change, offspring, the fully actualized Self. Mostly, it's a love poem, though, a love poem written to someone who could help the narrator justify all this waiting—a self-effacing poetic pipe-dream. The specific lines you mention contain emotive language that represents a grounded actuality. "I gave up skin for you" refers to the narrator refusing opportunities for intimacy with others because he continues to wait for the imminent subject of the poem. "I survived—for you—a major stork attack at the free clinic" alludes to the time our sixteen-year-old narrator took his girlfriend to get an abortion. Storks deliver babies, etc. A stork attack would refer to an unwanted pregnancy. It's brutal, I know, and I'm sorry for that. As I said, I cannot write discreetly. The "knife drawer" line connotes isolation and violence. Taking out all the wheelchairs is probably heightened language slash compressed meaning that represents the narrator's making it out of his past physically unscathed. Zombification has to do with the dulling of the mind that occurs after a long stretch of working a dead-end job, specifically in an office environment with cubicles, the twenty-first century sweatshop. When I wrote this poem I was living in Rhode Island, alone, and working as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a small liberal arts college. I had no idea what I would do when my contract ended. I would characterize my state of mind as crazed and deprived yet hopeful.
9. In your second section there is a poem titled "Harry and Bess" which details a couple where the man is coming home drunk and the impression is given that this is not a rare occasion. The reader also gets the sense that Bess may have finally had enough based on Harry's visions of her as he reels towards the front door. Tell me how you came about writing this poem? The poem leads me to believe that Bess is forever cleaning up after Harry and maintaining the home and the relationship while Harry continues on a hapless and hazardous lifestyle. Was this a couple you know or ones you made up based on past experiences? The imagery of sounds, smells, tastes do a wonderful job of portraying just how drunk Harry is.
Here is the poem in its entirety:
Harry and Bess
Harry opens the car door and falls into the front yard.
Moonlight turns the rain to burnished wire.
Thinking a natural emetic might remind the evening
to play chamber music instead of opera,
he takes a deep, guttural breath—and lets go.
Way past empty, way past reflection,
he stands on his knees, all but drenched,
tips his head back and swallows a mouthful
of rainwater that tastes like a silver dollar smells.
He slams the car door to stop the murderous chiming.
Does it matter that he's late coming to ground
or that he's hammered drunk? Does it matter
that driving home from the bar nearly made him
a sitting duck for the flimflam of local tragedy?
Bess thinks it matters, and she's inside
their mostly yellow house loading a new battery
into the smoke alarm, always the watchful assistant.
How will she react to the purple impressions
of fingers and knuckles now blooming
like dirty orchids across his middle,
the grim result of an even grimmer proposition
that his puzzled colleagues buy him drinks
in exchange for punching him in the stomach?
Harry can see frenetically choreographed phone calls
to in-laws and lawyers in his future—
dark, annulling blood in the drains.
Bess has spent too much time with the sofa
and the lamps to fall for such incompetent misdirection.
Enough is enough is enough. Harry and Bess
might as well be magicians for all their years
of repetition and consultation and fading,
their shared history of innocent gestures covering up
momentous verdicts, their proud tolerance for pain.
Why else would they know that the greatest feats
of legerdemain depend on the simplest falsehoods
and that anything in this world can suddenly disappear?
A9: Last spring, I found on my computer the beginning of a short story I had abandoned over a decade ago. The story's trigger evolved out of some research I'd done on Hungarian-American magician and escapologist Harry Houdini. Apparently, he maintained a longstanding agreement with the public that anyone at anytime could punch him in the stomach, and he would withstand the blow without injury. This went on for years. In 1926, a college student asked to take a shot at him and he agreed, but the guy didn't give the magician enough time to tighten his stomach muscles. Houdini had already been suffering from appendicitis, and the physical trauma likely ruptured his appendix. He refused medical treatment and even continued to travel and perform, though obviously in great pain, until he collapsed during a gig. He died of peritonitis about a month after the initial blow to the stomach. When I found the abandoned story I decided to heat up the language and lineate. I did some more research and really tried to contemporize a few shards of Houdini legend. The following details influenced the writing: From 1893 on, Houdini's wife, Bess, worked as his stage assistant; they lived in a house at 278 W. 113th Street in New York City; many of Houdini's stunts required him to hold his breath for as long as three minutes and to regurgitate small keys at will; Harry and Bess were actually deeply in love, and she always tried to get him to take fewer risks in his act and in life, but he declined. Some interesting magic terminology made its way into the poem: "proposition," "misdirection," "repetition," "consultation," "fading," "legerdemain"—and the piece ends on the word "disappear." I do believe, however, that the poem stands on its own without any of this back story. That's what I wanted to accomplish. And I wrote "Harry and Bess" under the spell of It's Not You, It's Me; therefore, I felt I needed to take a perfectly good relationship and ruin it in a poem by re-imagining the characters. I really like how dense this piece appears and yet the narrative clearly comes through.
10. In the last section, your poem "The Tonight Show" is a poem where you describe your entire family being able to come together peacefully to watch a television show despite the turmoil and dysfunctional interactions of your every day dealings with each other and the aftermath effects. Was your family truly like this growing up and what made you decide to write a poem about it in such a way that Johnny Carson becomes the peacemaker/savior of the evening?
Here is the poem in its entirety:
The Tonight Show
After every single game
and most practices
we sat in the family room
with the television off.
My father apostrophized
while I stared at a row
of wooden geese with artificial
gold-plated wings flying
across the manila wall
suffering through a ruthless,
two-hour critique of my shooting,
my defense, my passing and rebounding—
even my timeout huddle posture.
You didn't need to be Greek
to recognize the unwholesomeness
of his father-son fiasco.
Hence, the geese and the staring
and the migraines that arrived,
like wages, twice a month.
Sick headaches, my mother
called them in the original Hillbilly
The pain started in my eyes,
luminosity burned, and the borders
of objects and faces wavered.
Inside of an hour, I lay flat
on my back with the lights out,
quietly moaning to myself
as sulfuric acid sloshing around
the mutiny of my cortex.
My mother would bring me
a warm dishrag for my forehead
and a worthless pill to dissolve
under my tongue. The hours passed
in gong-like fashion and just before
Ed McMahon introduced Johnny Carson
I would vomit in the trashcan
my mother left the side of my bed,
and the pain simply
resolved itself and floated away.
I will never forget the sweet relief
of walking down the gangplank
to where my parents sat
waiting for The Tonight Show
and drinking sulfuric acid
by the glassful. They let me sit in front
of the television and watch Carson
whose squinting, paternal laughter
signaled the end of an ordeal.
Life seemed to begin anew
right there in the family room
with Burbank gleaming like Ithaca
in a completely different time zone.
A10: My family was much worse than this. My upbringing was much more unpredictable and violent. But most of "The Tonight Show" is based on fact—except for the bit about sulfuric acid (obvious hyperbole). At that time of night, Johnny Carson was about the only thing on television. I remember seeing all the great comedians from that era: Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. I'm sure the incongruity of such moments helped produce my sense of gallows humor. And this poem has a sort of happy ending: We can see our narrator one day escaping to California.
11. One thing poets are known for is exposing "the truth" in life and your poems in this collection not only expose the dysfunction going on in your own life but also that of others. You take on multiple perspectives and point different lenses at what is going on around you. Have you always taken this approach to your poetry and why do you expose the less savory sides of people in these poems?
A11: Admission is more expansive than my first book, Casino of the Sun. And I can't help showcasing the less savory sides of myself and other people because that's what fascinates me at this point in my life. And for the longest time, that's all I ever saw. I think that will change, though. I do hope that people don't find Admission to be too judgmental. That's not what I meant to happen. But we are still allowed to have opinions in this world, right? That said, I would like to thank you again, Paula, for inviting me on your blog and asking such penetrating questions. They forced me to face the consequences of my work—in a good way. Another happy ending.
Jerry Williams, thanks so much for letting me interview you about your anthology, It's Not You, It's Me, and your collection of poems in Admission. I wish you continued success in your poetic endeavors.
Thanks to everyone reading, if you would like a copy of the anthology, It's Not You, It's Me, you may purchase a copy at Overlook Press who published the anthology for $14.95 (not including shipping), supplied may be limited so please visit soon at the link below:
You can also purchase a copy of his collection of poems titled Admission from Amazon.com for around $15.95 (not including shipping), supplies may be limited here, too, so visit soon at the link below:
Thanks always for reading and please click in tomorrow for more Poems Found by Poet Hound…