The Poem Becomes a Spinning Map: An Interview with Amaud Jamaul Johnson by Christopher Kondrich

Amaud Jamaul Johnson 
I am thrilled to present the winner, finalists and semi-finalists of the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Contest, which was graciously judged by Amaud Jamaul Johnson. I had the pleasure of conversing with Johnson over email in the weeks leading up to release of this issue. Born and raised in Compton, California, Johnson was educated at Howard University and Cornell University. He is the author of two books, Darktown Follies (Tupelo, 2013) and Red Summer (Tupelo, 2006), winner of the Dorset Prize. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, his honors include fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Hurston/Wright Foundation, and Cave Canem. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.
CK: Darktown Follies begins at the end, with an “Encore.” It’s the end of a minstrel show, the end of one kind of representation of (and, after the Civil War, by) African-Americans and the beginning of another, offstage and in daily lives. And yet, it’s also the beginning of another kind of representation happening on the page, in the voices of actors, performers and comedians. How do you see poetry navigating the space between beginning and end, voice and speaker, and the versions of representation with which your work engages?
AJJ: I’m interested in echoes, or how things bleed into each other. Of course, this falls back on the tradition of Call and Response; how art emerges from the interdependent relationship between speaker and audience. Encores are trouble. Does the performer respond to the quality of the applause? Is the performer inspired to continue the performance? It’s the stillness, the hesitation that fascinates me. I’ve always thought of a poem as one half of an imagined conversation, so that silence at the end of a poem never seems final. And doesn’t witnessing make us complicit? I’m not trying to indict my readers, but if there’s no easy out, no escape route, no ending, you must own/carry/bear witness to what’s given. You break the poetic line, you buy it.
CK: Your answer has me thinking about readers, in some way, as bearers of burden across the broken terrain between lines, and, if there is “no escape route, no ending,” as you say, then there isn’t a stop to what accumulates. There’s only more to carry line-to-line, poem-to-poem including what the poem echoes, what’s going on around the poem (e.g. in Ferguson) that seems to address the persistence, in this case, of some truly horrific themes. This is why the final poem of the book, “Cherene,” is so striking. Most of the lines aren’t enjambed— they’re end-stopped. We don’t have to “own/carry/bear witness” because the poem ends almost every line in love. Can you speak to the end-stopped nature of this poem and, perhaps, how you see “The Olio,” the second section of the book, owning or carrying over from the first section, “The Walk Around?”

AJJ: Well, echoes are unavoidably political. Historically speaking, and depending on which end of the stick you’re holding, our greatest weakness is an inability to process systemic concerns. People want to be challenged, but not as much as they want to be entertained. I’m searching for a poetics that won’t provide an easy resolution for the reader. Of course, this assumes something about our nature, that we suffer from a strange kind of schizophrenia, where we are nostalgic for something that didn’t exist and simultaneously ahistorical. I find the subject of minstrelsy compelling because humor exposes a great deal of our intellectual and emotional make up.

I’m interested in uncomfortable silences, awkward laughter, and hesitations. Maybe truths lurk there. Public, private, performative, intimate: what constitutes the aesthetic shifts between these sensibilities?

In Darktown Follies, the movement between the first and the second sections represents the removal of the cork, the grease paint of the stage. As a strategy, I figured the only way to explore foolishness is to be willing to make myself a fool. Isn’t this what we fear? Isn’t this what we risk as artists? “Cherene,” the closing poem, feels stark, and the lack of enjambment, the repetition, even the line length, all boil down to the speaker’s vulnerability. I hoped to strip everything back to body and blood, sex, death, and rebirth. Even the final image of hands echoes the first poem, “Encore.” The best songs won’t let us go. We internalize patterns. We dance. We hum.
CK: I really love what you say about “searching for a poetics that won’t provide an easy resolution for the reader.” Do you find this aesthetic elsewhere in the literary arts community (or in other media)—the kind that combats our schizophrenia (if this is even what it does) by strapping the mind in a chair next to the absence of answers? I suppose this is my way of asking about contemporary and/or historical influences and where you might be headed next.
AJJ: Obviously, we are rarely that far removed from simply restating the value of Negative Capability, but culturally I still think we are at odds with our ability to manage doubt and mystery. I wonder if this explains why the American Mainstream struggles so with lyric poetry. There are writers and musicians I regularly return to when I feel lost. Take, of example, Brigit Pegeen Kelly or Thelonious Monk. In “The Orchard,” Kelly’s speaker witnesses a wild dog feeding on a doe in an apple orchard. The energy of the poem comes from the speaker’s desire to make sense of the scene, “to bring the scene down to size.” Rather than provide a narrative of experience, the poem becomes a spinning map of the speaker’s consciousness, full of questions and confusion, where all the images transform: “Dog. To horse. To man.” We move from an apple to the image of a “child’s fist” to the “still warm and almost beating / Heart of some holy being,” which we consume with the speaker. The horror and beauty of her work have no equal. Kelly’s genius is her ability to dance in the smallest corners of the imagination. She can take an object and spin it and spin it, refiguring her inner world through the simplest things. There are no cheap pyrotechnics. It’s the image system that seduces/coerces us into feeling.
Thelonious Monk accomplishes something similar in his classic song, “Misterioso.” It opens with heavy repetition, ascends, then the scab breaks, the song leaps into extended solos between Johnny Griffin on tenor saxophone and Monk on piano. If Jazz leads as our greatest cultural product, here, Hard Bop challenges us to find a resting place suspended between anticipation and interruption. Considering the structural legacy of this song, sound works as a double-signifier, where the listener clings to the fragments of an initial melody, while being flung into space. The leap in Jazz, like the turn of a poem, is a matter of gravity and faith. “Misterioso” ends as it begins. It’s the lingering echo that pulls us back. If I can figure out how to write a poem that pulls this off, I’m done.
CK: Lastly, I wanted to touch on the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Contest, which you so graciously judged. You selected Aaron Coleman’s “St. Inside & Not,” which shares, as I see it, an affinity for syntactical maneuvering with your work. How do you navigate the judging process and what stuck out for you about this poem and the others?

AJJ: I read the list of finalists aloud, alone, standing in my office. While there were many fine, well-polished poems, the music of Aaron Coleman’s “St. Inside & Not” followed me out of the room. The use of anaphora, heavy alliteration and assonance, the quirkiness of the syntax, the image system, all kept me off balance. I was under the spell of this poem. A poem should possess its own logic, establish a unique authority over the reader. From the first line, the poem takes you by the throat and turns. Reading “Being midnight ripped / off the face of constellation,” I thought of Dickinson’s “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off ...” Of course, I’ve never been able to divorce this sentiment from my lingering fear of racial violence. But I know Coleman’s lyric shatters us into song. I know this is poetry! Congratulations to the winner and the finalists.